Bugs & Mickey Walk Into A Bar

A few years back I did a project with comedy writer Rob Long. Last week I found this book he wrote (long before I met him) about the years between his first job as writer/producer on “Cheers” and the cancellation of his first original series by a fledgling broadcaster a few years later.

It’s a fun glimpse into -what turned out to be -the waning days of the sitcom hegemony.

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Here’s an excerpt that is a great bit on character that discusses animation icons.

Comedy writers have a long-running debate, one that lasts through bottles of wine and into the early-morning hours. It is known as the Mickey Mouse Question, and it goes like this: Mickey Mouse is not a funny character. He neither tells jokes nor does anything funny, and his girlfriend is an uptight bore. Bugs Bunny, on the other hand, is a brilliantly inventive comic genius, sharp-witted, physically agile, a fearless wise guy who thinks nothing of donning a dress, producing an anvil out of thin air, kissing his enemy on the lips, and in the face of death and torture calling out a cheery “What’s Up Doc?” Bugs is much funnier than Mickey, no contest. Why, then, is Mickey the billionaire movie star? People don’t seem to be able to get their fill of that little rat, him with his squeaky voice and gee-whiz attitude. Mickey is completely inoffensive, involved in a long-term, caring relationship, optimistic. Bugs is the opposite: he’s a wild man with a raging carrot-dependency, big with the exploding props and the verbal abuse, and one of these days he’s going to go over the edge. Mickey never will. He and his girlfriend will spend their days in inoffensive, unfunny bliss. But it is Bugs who makes us laugh, and isn’t that, after all, enough?

Creating a television sitcom means choosing between Mickey and Bugs, between a universe of likeable, not-terribly funny people and a universe of vaguely disturbing, very funny people. Networks tend, on the whole, not to like funny characters very much. If they had their choice, every sitcom would be a family or group of Mickeys, with maybe a Bugs living next door. Writers, unfortunately, on the whole prefer a big group of Bugses with a Mickey around to say things like “What’s going on here? Are you all out of your minds?”

2013 Ottawa International Animation Festival – Day Four

This year the Festival was a little compressed. I think having the awards on Saturday is a good idea, but that means the programming gets crammed into -essentially- two days. Saturday feels like a lost day, and Sunday we’ll be taking off. It’s a good format and I’m sure the scheduling will be cleaner if they continue with it.

It should also be noted that the projection at this festival is universally good. Having been through a hundred or so screenings over the years, there have only been a few instances of bad projection (all at the same venue). That’s an accomplishment. Each year well over 200 films screen at least twice each, these are spread over a half dozen venues. A filmmaker can be assured that their work will be given great treatment by the technical team.

I sat in on a “Meet the Filmmakers” today. The program we represented was universally good. Members of the audience, as always, wasted time on repeated questions and uninteresting nonsense but all the directors had revealing things to say about their work. Except me, I just blathered and hid my ignorance with big words.

Eric Goldberg gave a talk at St. Brigid’s Church -a new location this year. He was followed by the creator of Cartoon Network’s popular “Regular Show”. Both of these talks filled the pews.

I had Tom Sito sign his new book: “Moving Innovation: The History of Computer Animation”. I like “Drawing The Line” a great deal and look forward to reading this one.

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The stations of the cross seem appropriate decor for an awards ceremony. This year’s may not have been as bad as falling for the third time, but it was no Veronica wiping your face, either.

Many of the award selections for short form films fell somewhere between poor and laughably atrocious, but the audience award for “But Milk Is Important” was well chosen. Filmmakers Eirik Grønmo Bjørndrn & Anna Mantazaris made a nice piece and should be encouraged to make more. It may be a difficult road for them, but let’s hope they continue on it.

The non-jury “Best Canadian Animation” went to “Two Weeks – Two Minutes” by Judith Poirier. This is cameraless film using printmaking techniques. I liked it a great deal. There a world of graphic designer films that this fits in to. I may start thinking more about these types of films. They don’t consider themselves “animation” -and they might not be, but I think they go back to Saul Bass and to Len Lye and probably even earlier.

The show wrapped with what started as a funny bit -one of the students from Japan singing to his work.

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As it went on (far too long), it began to feel more and more like a minstrel show -a young man doing an Oriental Step-n-Fetchit routine. Maybe next year’s theme for student projects can explore the line between self-effacing and self-debasing.

2013 Ottawa International Animation Festival -Day Three

Competition 3 from Thursday was an anomaly.

Today featured competitions 4 and 5. Number 4 was solid all of the way through, and 5 had some valleys but equivalent peaks. Both very good selections.

Our film, “The Honor Code”, screened at the 10 am competition 4. It’s a nice little piece, Kelsey Stark did her typically phenomenal job with the design and layout. It feels so long ago since we did it that I don’t even see the mistakes and short cuts that bothered me at completion.

My favorite film of the festival was in the same screening, “Strange Wonderful” by Stephanie Swart from RISD.

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An initially off-putting character design works into a pretty, beautiful little film. Remarkable, the spacial dynamic within frame by use of contrasting scale between scenic elements. I hope to see it again.

Also surprising is Alexis Beaumont & Rémy Godin’s music video for Stuck in the Sound “Let’s Go”. More of a narrative film than music video it takes four or five surprising (but not unbelievable) turns in three and a half minutes.

The evening screening kicked off with Theo Ushev’s “Gloria Victoria”. It’s in line with Drux Flux and Tower Bawher, similar graphic approach. Great Shostakovich. Maybe a minute or two too long, but a beautiful piece.

There was also a new film by Rosto. This was as comically sophomoric as his other films, even adding a non-sequitur Christ on Cross allusion for the full high school rebel appeal. It’s Ayn Rand-level pomposity but, unlike the jumbled scrawlings of that mid-century sociopath, a film that’s hilarious and completely enjoyable in it’s high-budget indulgence. May the filmmaker never grow up.

I also caught some of the feature, “The Boy and The World”. It’s a non-verbal film in a simple design style. It makes for difficult viewing in a festival situation where personal endurance is as much a factor as the film’s quality. It demands a repeat viewing and I hope it gets distribution.

The picnic happened today too.

Ottawa International Animation Festival – Day Two

Chris Robinson conducted a “Meet the Filmmakers” for the first shorts screening first thing in the morning.

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The session was snappy and well conducted (until the dreadful audience questions), Chris has seen the films numerous times and clearly put a lot of thought into them. As an interviewer his interest in them is apparent and made for an exceptional session.

Competition screening #2 contained a few highly anticipated films -Chris Landreth’s “Subconscious Password” which the National Film Board is heavily promoting, new work from Koji Yamamura and a new film from Jérémy Clapin whose previous film “Skhizein” was mini-masterpiece. Yamamura’s piece appears to be work-for-hire segments for Japanese television. As always, the drawing is exquisite. Clapin’s “Palmipédarium” is so far the biggest disappointment of the festival. Good work creates unfair expectations.

Screening highlights include Yoriko Mizushiri “Futon”. Sensuous and sinewy:

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Also a nice music video by Lucas Borras for Quantic & Alice Russell’s “Magdalena” which relied principally on clever use of photographs within the frame and drawn animation within them. That’s a poor description:

QUANTIC & ALICE RUSSELL – MAGDALENA from Lucas Borrás on Vimeo.

There were a handful of other nice shorts worth seeking out from a well balanced program.

Amongst the events later was a signing of “Animation Sketchbooks” by several of the artists involved. Hokey idea, but a very nice book. I’ll be sure to have additional artists add their John Hancock when they pass through the studio.

A work schedule pulled me from attending a few promising events: interview with Chris Sullivan, some interesting looking panels at TAC (on YouTube and the always informative “Pitch This!” session).

The Competition Shorts #3 is possibly the worst program I’ve seen at any Ottawa Festival. The few appealing were marred by proximity. Worst of all, the selection was anchored by a TV comedy that may be funny in the continuum of the series but had all the appeal of a sexed-up Clutch Cargo in the context of the rest of the Festival. Looking back at the program I see several films of merit on the list -films I’ve seen elsewhere and gotten something from, the overall feeling from the show was an hour and of “please end”.

Tomorrow, “The Honor Code” runs in Competition 4. I expect bloggers to trash it with fervor.

2013 Ottawa International Animation Festival – Day One

An overriding excuse -I’ve been busy lately.  In bed at 3 am, out a 7 am (or later and earlier) kind of busy.  This, of course, is my own fault.  Trying to accommodate the world.

Multi-week sleep deprivation is a similar sensation to attending a film festival.  A soft cloud develops around your head, sunlight grows a sharpened edge, a long red light seems like a good time for a little nap.  Rollercoaster programming of a good festival, though, will make you angry and elated and raise you out of the even-keeled funk of the working world.

The festival in Ottawa unfurls so that it’s possible to be slowly drawn into the movie-haze unaware, in my current state I hit it in full fog.  The Television Animation Conference precedes the film programming by a day.  This is mostly dull stuff about animation as a product.  Movie making as money making, producing art as though it were manufacturing widgets.  But still, there is always something interesting.  Yesterday that was a panel that included Titmouse impresario Chris Prynowski.  His work as an animator is impressive and his studio produces work that exceeds the quality of any other making series for American television.  As a speaker he’s engaging and articulate.  He’s honest about the process and clearly know what he’s talking about.  A lot of people hide behind abstractions and broad figures when discussing work -it hints at a mere surface understanding of what it takes to make something.  Prynowski’s self-effacing discussion of the top to bottom details of his operation is possibly the most engaging thing I’ve seen at any TAC.

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This year the event is being held at the Museum of Nature.  It’s a nice venue.  Cocktail parties surrounded by dinosaurs.

Two screenings in the evening: the French/Belgian feature “Approved for Adoption” and the competition shorts #1.

Approved for Adoption

It might be a new “thing” in European animation, and it’s not a good thing, to “toon shade” CGI models so they look like something from Xtranormal.com.  There was a short in competition that did the same thing.  It’s made even worse by the drawn sequences in the film that are generally pretty attractive (same is true for the short).

For me, the highlight film of the short program was Edmunds Jansons’ “Choir Tour.”  The story is no great shakes but the design and animation are both terrific.

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The look utilizes contemporary drawing tools -likely Illustrator or Photoshop or some such thing in a pleasing and expressive fashion.  The animation is idiosyncratic and exploits the design.

Julia Pott’s “The Event” also ran.  There’s a lot to like about this film, and I’ve seen it several times.  It holds up (and in some ways improves) with repeat viewings.  I wish I could pinpoint why it leaves me a little cold.  It’s a good piece, though.  Strange to say, it felt a little out-of-place in the program.  Usually an apocalypse like this would be one of many in a competition selection- last night it felt like the only one.

Joanna Priestley’s “Split Ends” is attractive.  It feels like some of the graphics within it could form the basis of an interesting film.  She’s working in shape and abstraction to the point where they near representation.  Maybe this experiment will get pushed further in a future work.

Aliens

We’ve been having some server issues which seem like they’re finally resolved.  So everything should be back online (the site migrated to another server leaving the blog behind, but now it’s all straight).

The intervening month has been berry busy.

We made a series of music videos for Grouplove totaling around 12 minutes of original animation.

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Kelsey Stark directed a bunch of animators including Casey Drogin, Taisiya Zaretskaya, Liesje Kraai, Christine Wu and Leah Shore.  Now she’s off to Iceland to make a film, while not gracing her with her presence she is gracing us with a blog of her adventures:  http://thorgeirsboli.tumblr.com/  Don’t be surprised to find beautiful things therein.

Here’s the full video:

It’s an explanation of these little films: www.grouplovemusic.com/toonlove

I recommend taking twenty minutes or so to watch them in progression. It’s nice that Kelsey was able to inject some real emotional moments into these character studies.

Next week we’re heading to Ottawa for the animation festival. “The Honor Code” is screening in competition. Internet-willing we’ll have daily accounts.

Permanent Chill

Some time in the early 80s, my preteen years, when my father subscribed to the over-air cable alternative WHT, I must have seen a weekend or late night broadcast of “Harold & Maude”.

I don’t actually remember seeing the film.  A decade later, Alex Reshanov and I watched it. Though I had no recollection of previously sitting through the film I knew the whole thing.  Not only had I known the film, it had made clear impressions on my still forming mind.  Like the atheist seeds planted by “Jason & the Argonauts” (which I clearly remember watching over and over), “Harold & Maude” provided a vocabulary for my constant thoughts on death.  In another way it voiced legitimacy to my habit of forming close friendships with older woman.

Gail Levin with Roz Chast at WNET recording for "Need to Know"
Gail Levin with Roz Chast at WNET recording for “Need to Know”

The first of these matron pals was my Great Aunt Betty who took me to every Phillies game for years and taught me to wear a seat belt.  Aunt Betty was the second person I knew to die.  Her passing brought me more shame than sorrow.  Shame that I wasn’t there, shame that I didn’t really know her at all.  What could a 12 year old boy know of septuagenerian spinster anyway?  We know so little about ourselves, how can we know about others?

My latest Ruth Gordon -and the best since Aunt Betty -died yesterday after a long spell with cancer.

Gail Levin was a great friend.  For at least a half-decade we spoke nearly every day.  Though she was effusive with affection, Gail was not a particularly “open” person (with me, at least) and I liked that a lot.  Her story came together piecemeal over edit sessions, movie screenings, art shows or shoots.  I once presented her with a painting that abstractly depicts two men setting sail on a trans-Atlantic journey.  “You know I crossed the ocean in a sailing ship…”

Gail behind camera at our studio with Dewald Aukema shooting Steve Brodner for "Cab Calloway: Sketches"
Gail behind camera at our studio with Dewald Aukema shooting Steve Brodner for “Cab Calloway: Sketches”

A few people have asked how old she was.  I have to laugh and say “I have no idea!”  She interviewed Hal Ashby, I know that.  She interviewed hundreds of interesting people and was really, really good at it.  When her sickness made it impossible to travel, a colleague went in her stead to conduct an interview.  Watching the footage together, the subject was stumbling for a name -an old Hollywood agent -the interviewer didn’t know (neither did I).  Gail immediately shouted it out to me.  The interview subject, an old guy himself, deflated with his failing memory.  That moment I learned that a good interviewer needs more than good questions.   She was able to get people to speak deeply and honestly.

I’m having trouble speaking deeply, but I can honestly say that I loved her a great deal, and will miss her even more.

Just as she could produce the right fact at the right moment, she also had a way to find commonality with people- everyone’s kindred spirit.  Maybe it was Frank Loesser or basketball or just a kind word at the right moment, Gail was a person who immediately made life a shared experience.

Gail and I worked together for only six or seven years.  In that time, both her parents died, my father died, the Phillies won the world series (her Boston days left her a Red Sox/Celtics/Patriots fan- though she also like goofy Eli Manning too and took up for the Phillies with me). We worked on 16 contracts and developed a bunch more -many productions, like The Naked Campaign, involved multiple films.  Whether she asked for titling of a work-for-hire film like “Two World, One Planet” (please note we had nothing to do with titling in this trailer -Gail would have been appalled) or more intricate design, animation, and effects sequences in “Jeff Bridges: The Dude Abides” or “Cab Calloway: Sketches” she approached our work together holistically.   People were not making parts of a film or doing a “job”, everyone provided a voice and the results -when successful -would be a rafter shaking choir.

Sneak Preview

Had a few screenings of excerpts from Elliot Cowan’s feature film “The Stressful Adventures of Boxhead and Roundhead” yesterday.

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We ran the twenty or so minutes 5 times throughout the day, for audiences of around 6 at a time on the big 10 foot 4k projection screen at the studio.

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We had a mix of producers, directors, writers, animators, actors and activists show up throughout the day.  Pictured here was an animator-dominated screening, with a producer/writer thrown in for good measure (though most of these animators can add a few “/” slash titles too).

You’ll see Elliot fielding questions and filling the gaps between the set pieces shown.  Turns out everybody hated it and he’ll have to start over from the beginning.

 

 

Close To You

 

 

 

Saturday night in Easton, PA, Maciek Albrecht had a rare screening of his 1995 film “Close To You”.

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Maciek may be the greatest  confluence of talent and hard work I’ve ever met.  “Close To You” is a 40 minute film which tells a tale that all young city dwellers can understand -falling for a face in the crowd you may never meet.

It’s good to see an animator address real human circumstances, but the greater achievement here is the graphic stylization.  (These still are cel phone snaps, so the quality of image is pretty poor)

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The film is primarily produced in the most painstaking production methodology possible.  Animated on paper, then cleaned up in with color pencil (multiple lines per drawing), rendered with several passes of airbrush and then mounted on cel.   Maybe the technique was slightly different, but not too far off.

More animators should heed their artistic inclinations and create work with such graphic ambitions.  I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have worked with Maciek on several films and he has never let the parameters of project prevent him from developing new ideas.  He’s never said, “Oh, the budget on this so low we have to do it with symbols  in Flash”.  Sometimes the approach might become a little cumbersome for the confines of a contract, but those things can always be figured out.

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The screening also served as a fundraiser for a new project.

He’s got a crowd-funding campaign going.

His studio doubles as a gallery (and it’s a great studio, with a soundstage, shop, edit room, and held up by, in part, by the column to his old Oxberry), and after the screening they had art from Close To You on sale.closetoyou04

Most of these set up were $75 or less.  Each is a perfect example of the craftmanship and precision that goes into animation production.

I got as many as I could afford.  Not only are they beautiful, but this is an artist who should be supported by anyone who cares about animation, who cares about film and art.

closetoyou05(above: greater-than-life-size painted cut outs of the film’s characters)