Swinging Around the Country with Mary Lou

We did a boat load of graphics and animation for Mary Lou Williams: The Lady Who Swings the Band.

It was a tremendous pleasure to work with director Carol Bash and editor Sandra Christie on this project. Amongst the sequences we created are a few based on the paintings or notebooks of Mary Lou Williams herself. Kelsey Rose Stark did her standard brilliant job with those.

Here’s the opening sequence we created. A classier -a jazzier -take on the standard PBS cold open.

ITVS was critical in sponsoring the film. Here’s a listing of broadcasts around the country. If you don’t see your town (or missed the broadcast) contact your local PBS affiliate and tell them you want to see the film. Put the “you” in “Viewers Like You”!

pril 2—Thursday at 2pm on KCSM (San Francisco)
April 4—Saturday at 9pm on KENW (Amarillo, TX)
April 4 to April 5—various times, check local listings on KLVX-JAC (Las Vegas)
April 5—Sunday at 11pm on WNIT (South Bend, IN)
April 6—various times and stations, check local listings (Lexington, KY area)
April 10—Friday at 10pm on Alaska Public Media (Anchorage)
April 10—Friday at 11pm on WEDU (Tampa, Florida)
April 10—Friday at 11pm on WPTD (Dayton, Ohio)
April 10—Friday at 11:30pm on KCTS (Seattle, WA)
April 10—Friday at 11:30pm on KYVE (Yakima, WA)
April 10—Friday at 11pm on WPTD (Dayton, Ohio)
April 12—Sunday at 2pm on TPT (Minneapolis)
April 12—Sunday at 8pm on KUEN (Salt Lake City)
April 12—Sunday at 2pm on TPT (Minneapolis)
April 12—Sunday at 8pm on KUEN, KUED (Salt Lake City)
April 13—Monday at 3am on WNET, WLIW, WNJN (New York City area)
April 15 to April 17—various times, check local listings on WCETDT3 (Cincinnati)
April 17 to April 23—various times, check local listings on WVIZ (Cleveland)
April 17—Friday at 10pm on WVIZ (Cleveland)
April 19—Sunday at 2am on on KUEN, KUED (Salt Lake City)
April 19—Sunday at 1:30pm on WNET (New York City)
April 19—Sunday at 4pm on WGVU (Grand Rapids, Mi.)
April 26—Sunday at 8pm on SCC (Greenville, SC)
April 29—Wednesday at 6am ETV World (Columbia, SC)
April 11—Saturday at 3am on WIPB (Indianapolis, IN)

Keep up with Mary Lou Williams: The Lady Who Swings the Band on Facebook for more updates!

Another Screening, Coming Up

Tomorrow (March 25) there’s a preview screening and discussion of David Grubin’s Rx: The Quiet Revolution.

We did the opening sequence and few little bits of animation.

Screening’s at SVA theatre. Drop us a note if you want more details.


Otherwise tune in next week -Thursday, April 2 -to your PBS station (check local listings).

Christmas Storyboards

I’ve this great notebook for several years. I picked it up in London and have only used it off and on. It’s called the “Bushey” from Charles Roberson & Co. I can’t find a US reseller. While I done crazier thing than order a stack of sketchbooks to be shipped from across the ocean, I’m not sure if I have that store of crazy in me at the moment.

Anyway, I found these rough boards for “Sympathy for the Fish” when I was flipping through recently for blank pages.

It’s interesting for me to see how closely they resemble the end product.


Kelsey Stark is largely responsible for the animation on this. She always brings a high measure of artistry to my crappy ideas.


In making this film, we basically went from these drawings to slightly tighter boards cut against my voice track.


I’m pretty sure I scribbled these boards on the subway -not that that’s any excuse for the lousy drawing.


It’s a writing/script based film -though I think the images play an important role in working against the narration and adding information that’s not said -so the boards, by and large, stem from the script.


Because of this, I had figured out the picture for the most part while writing.


We only wound up cutting one antic with the doctor -in the board he picks up a few items before the wire cutter, ultimately it’s just the one.


These are some of my rough design concepts which Kelsey turned into something very nice.

We’ll have a new holiday themed film ready in a couple weeks.

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.


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 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.


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.


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:


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.

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.

Citrus Cel Animation Festival 2013

Our film, “Christmas Day” played in Jacksonville at the Citrus Cel Animation Festival last week.

Kelsey Stark flew down for the weekend.  This is her report.



The Florida Theater where they held the screening was a really awesome, old theater in the center of downtown that played hip indie music loud enough to hear a couple blocks away. (I’m sure there are better pictures of it online if you want to see.) The last day with the Laika presentation and final screening were the best attended events.


Highlights for me were the experimental screening which was a good mix of films with experimental technique and experimental structure. The lemonade screening was probably my favorite.


All the films were handmade, including a good deal of stop motion, and some somber European hand painted films which were long and depressing but quite beautiful. Half the films in this screening (and probably all the screenings for that matter) had obnoxious world-music type accordion and piano soundtracks. The kind that have been overused since the early 2000s when Amelie came out. In fact I think some of them might have actually used the same exact songs.

There was a nice exhibition set up of concept art for some of the films that were screened on the 2nd floor of the theater. This detail, that I’m sure only half the people in attendance saw, was one of my favorite parts of the experience.

Seems like the biggest draw for people were the presentations. I only made it to the Business of Animation and Laika because of the way they had screenings and presentations staggered. Laika’s presentation about puppet fabrication was incredible, with a wealth of pictures and detailed explanation of their processes. They brought along some Paranorman characters with their faces taken apart, but the table was swamped and the only photo I got turned out blurry.

Ultimately it was a pretty good festival for only being in its 4th year. I was impressed by the large amount of international films they featured, and how smoothly they ran the screenings. There were definitely some gems, but as with most festivals, for every good film there were about 3 bad ones. Either way, its a shame more people didn’t show up considering there are a number of larger cities and art schools within a few hours drive.

Walter Benjamin on Mickey Mouse

Last week I picked up a new edition of Walter Benjamin.  This volume, dedicated solely to his writing on media, figures to stay in the studio.  The centerpiece is The Work of Art in the Age of Technological Reproducibility (my previous translation titles this as “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” -a name suitable for the era in which it was written, now redone for the Information Age)  Included is a fragment titled “Mickey Mouse”.

mickey mouse walter benjamin media ink doodle
A doodle while I work

I had read this long ago and on recollection attributed it to Brecht.  So I thumbed through my well worn copy of “Brecht on Theater” a few dozen times, searched the Methuen Collected Letters and Collected Essays as well as the few other small collections of his miscellaneous writing only to come up empty.

The confusion with Benjamin, I hope, is forgivable.  As penance, here’s the piece.


From a conversation with Gustav Glück and Kurt Weill —Property relations in Mickey Mouse cartoons: here we see it is possible for the first time to have one’s own arm, even one’s own body, stolen.

The route taken by a file in an office is more like that taken by Mickey Mouse than that taken by a marathon runner.

In these films, mankind makes preparations to survive civilization.

Mickey Mouse proves that a creature can still survive even when it has thrown off all resemblance to a human being.  He disrupts the entire hierarchy of creatures that is supposed to culminate in mankind.

These films disavow experience more radically than ever before.  In such a world, it is not worthwhile to have experiences.

Similarity to fairy tales.  Not since fairy tales have the most important and most vital events been evoked unsymbolically and more unatmospherically.  There is an immeasurable gulf between them an Maurice Maeterlinck or Mary Wigman.  All Mickey Mouse films are founded on the motif of leaving home in order to learn what fear is.

So the explanation for the huge popularity of these films is not mechanization, their form; nor is it a misunderstanding.  It is simply the fact that the public recognizes it’s own life in them.

The Life of an Underwear Model

Or modeling for underwear, more appropriately.

Actor Taylor Negron sat down with Richard Belzer for a wide ranging conversation which included a bit out being a model for the Hanna Barbera cartoon “Devlin” based on Evel Knievel.


The full interview will be available soon.