Get Thee to the Library

I’m thinking of getting a driver’s license. That’s not to say I’ve never driven a car, but only a few times in questionable circumstances under the intense looming gloom of the surveillance state. I don’t know if you ever seen people driving in this country. They don’t know what they’re doing. And yet, licenses.

When I get my license, I plan to drive to Rockland County to visit Ed Smith.

Ed Smith (right) with Vincent Caffarelli, early 1990s image from http://www.michaelspornanimation.com/
Ed Smith (right) with Vincent Caffarelli, early 1990s
image from http://www.michaelspornanimation.com/

I told him this last month. He responded by telling me something that happened over half a century ago. John Hubley was moving to New York (from under the cloud of Hollywood McCarthyism). I found it hard to believe that a guy from Los Angeles hadn’t driven a car, even harder to believe that LA once had a state of the art public transit, but I’m writing the footnotes, just going with it. So Hub, he’s calls him “Hub”, rings up Ed and says “take me out driving”. So he does. I think there was a punchline here but I’ve forgotten it. To me, the point of the story is that Ed Smith is the guy you call when you something done.

I can’t yet drive a car, so a couple weeks back I took the bus to the New City Library to see some drawings of Ed’s they have on exhibit, and to visit with Ed who was there for the afternoon. He’ll be there again this Sunday April, 23rd. The man’s a brilliant treasure, seeing him is worth more than the bus ride.

Here’s a bit he wrote for the show.

“Scrambled Leggs – Or, ‘Life as I Know It,’ by Ed Smith

I created these drawings in ink directly from my mind to the paper without preplanning, research, models, or penciled-in guides. There are no erasures or white-outs.

Outside of my workaday animation, I tried to find my own style. I emulated other artists, but not to my satisfaction. As time went on, I continued my animation on other people’s projects. Much had to be done under pressure, demanding tremendous numbers of drawings and impossible deadlines. Often, I experienced long periods of unemployment. During and after these trying times, I relaxed by drawing. I found pleasure in doing so, not for a job but for myself.

Much later, when I look at them, I saw things in them which gave them more meaning and nuance than I had purposely planned. Perhaps the difficulties and forced efforts had relieved the pressure of the right side of the brain, the conscious guardian of thought, and allowed the left side, the creative side, to emerge.

Sometimes we think too much!

_________

This reminds me of my most re-told exchange with Ed. We were doing a commercial in the style of Ed Koren.

Ed Koren drawing

He sends in his animation -exquisite work. He had done every drawing, every little hair and line, in ink perfectly on model. No work left for an inbetweener or clean up artist. So I asked him, “You do all those little lines in ink without any underdrawing, what do you do when you make a mistake?”. “Well,” he replied, “I’ll let you know when that happens.”

A minute later he described the various techniques he used to salvage drawings. He threw most of them away. It’s not until now that I realize, twenty years and twenty recounts later, he understood that if one part of an animation drawing isn’t working the whole thing won’t work.

The New City Library is a quick drive, if you can drive, across the Tappan Zee Bridge or very nice Sunday trip via Rockland Coaches.

Tissa David

Tissa David lived a life -was a person -worth eulogizing in heartiest way.

Her fans would create opportunities to sing her praises, as we have for the past few decades.

From “The Great Frost” based on Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando”. Design by Seymour Chwast

The canon of work bears repeating. The first woman to direct a hand drawn animated feature, “Bonjour Paris” for Grimault (Lotte Reininger’s cut out films preceded it). A string of marvels with the Hubley Studio: “Eggs”, “Cockaboody”, “Dig”. Her sequence in “Everybody Rides the Carousel” will bring a man to tears. The titular heroine of Richard Williams’ “Raggedy Ann & Andy”. Michael Sporn’s “The Red Shoes” and “The Marzipan Pig”. Her elegant take on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.

I knew her from working together at R. O. Blechman’s The Ink Tank. There she did stellar work with his delicate line, “The Soldier’s Tale” being a stand out.

Self Portrait as Fossil from Hubley’s “Dig”

At The Ink Tank, as with Hubley, she animated commercial after commercial.

She easily could have been a journeyman animator. There are dozens of highly skilled men who knocked out commercials of quality for everything from Apples to Zebras. These are artist who should be celebrated for the skill they brought to the craft. Tissa, though, she brought artistry. To the corniest bank commercial, she infused the stuff with soul.

Her artistry, that’s what we’ve raved about for ages. Her life, that’s what is truly amazing.

She could tell stories of walking (WALKING) from Budapest to Paris at the height of the Cold War, sneaking past the borders without papers or passport. She could tell you how her first job, her dream job, in New York at UPA came in part due to her lack of English. When Grim Natwick asked her, “What is animation?” She responded in pigeon, “Animation is animation.” The Swede laughed, “I’ve been asking people that question for 30 years and that’s the best answer I’ve heard.”

The events are something, to be sure, they are the result of the way she chose to live her life.

When I first started work with R. O. Blechman, he was somewhat paralyzed. A commercial was coming in and he needed Tissa to animate it. Tissa was on vacation. In Hungary maybe, or Paris, or Holland. Or maybe just Virginia. Or some other far flung corner of the globe.

She would take maybe four months out of the year to travel. Visit family. Visit friends. Live a life away from the lightbox and the pencil test screenings.

Upon her return to work she was fully dedicated in a way unlike anything I’ve seen. She could create a complete and vital film from an exposure sheet and a stack of paper. Then she would explain to you how she did it.
Classroom notes
I doubt there has been any greater teacher of the art in the past 30 years.

Her primary attribute, in my opinion, is devotion. Just as she would attend morning service daily (my Jesuit upbringing bridged an immediate connection), she was fully devoted to her craft. She was fully devoted to her family. And she was fully devoted to living a fruitful and productive life.

Even twenty years ago, Tissa would talk with an Old Transylvanian weariness about how she would soon be dead. First I’d say, “You animators live to be 100”. And she would reply something like, “Why would you curse me with such a thing?”. Soon I’d say, “So when you die, can I have your apartment?”

“I would love for you to have my apartment. But you know, it’s not that simple.”

From John Canemaker’s book on Raggedy Ann and Andy

Tissa left this world last night. The treasures she has given us.

Cartoons of Glory

This is an article from the November 3, 1986 New York Magazine that was in The Ink Tank pressbook.  I won’t repost all the copy, click the images to read everything.

The photo on page one is from an MTV ID designed by Mark Marek. The actress is R. O. Blechman’s mother-in-law.

Cartoonist R. O. Blechman, known for his squiggly line, was frustrated.  The head of The Ink Tank, an eight year old studio that makes animated films and television commercials, Blechman had spent the whole day trying to bring to life a storyboard for Serenity, a new product for incontinent women.  But the resolution and dissolves “weren’t working -the whole thing looked banal,” so he decided to scrap the agency suggestion and start fresh.  The revised spot opens with animation, segues into a live action sequence, and closes with animation.  Ordinarily, Blechman rejects the conventional ad-industry wisdom that live action is credible and animation is not, but in this case, he agreed the patch of reality worked.

The article then discusses some of the studio’s spots before getting to “a computer system recently installed at the Tape House Editorial Company… The new computer, nicknamed the Harry system, ‘lets you juggle and edit out anything -an offending pole, say -in live action or animation.'”  That’s the Paintbox system which would open a new chapter in special effects history.

Then:

Pan Productions has begun to specialize in “color xerography”.  The studio takes live action footage, Xeroxes it frame by frame, and colors the copy to produce an animated effect.  Los Angeles based Kurtz & Friends has created a futuristic spot for Toyota in which an illustrated sports car becomes a real Supra…

Perpetual Animation created a combination spot for Home Box Office that shows an animated family in a three-dimensional set, watching live-action movie clips on their cartoon TV.  Jerry Lieberman productions put real script erasable pens into the hands of animated people…

…Buzzco Associates has created a series of ads combining  live action and animation: a cartoon vacuum cleaner hosing around real-life cans of Love My Carpet; real babies crying animated tears for WMET radio; an animated viewer watching live-action TV for Lifetime Cable; and a drawing of a made-up eye becoming a real eye for Aziza eye shadow…

Then Candy Kugel points out this sort of thing has been around forever but technology makes it easier.

 …Nine years ago, Mark Zander Productions dropped comedian Bob Hope onto a remote oil rig operated by animated Texaco workers.  More recently Zander cast an animated basset hound in a chorus line of live dancers stomping and kicking for Hush Puppies shoes, and in a spot for Shick Plus  razors, planted a fuzzy white cartoon beard on the face of a real-life man. (The sudden appearance of the animated facial hair terrifies a crowd.)

Then there’s some pretty banal history which tries to elevate itself by calling Walt “Walter Elias Disney”.

The resurgence in commercial animation has been stimulated by advances in technology and by the work of artist like Blechman, who formed The Ink Tank in 1978 after producing an animated TV special. The Ink Tank’s next project is an allegorical film The Golden Ass, which tells the story of a young man who, having been magically transformed into a donkey, struggles to regain his human form. The story recalls Blechman’s award-winning TV film, The Soldier’s Tale, in which a peasant soldier trades his fiddle to the Devil in return for great wealth, and find happiness only when the trade is reversed.

With big dollar advertising, Blechman feels he has made a personal Mephistophelian swap. In the sixties, he refused to advertise cigarettes, promote Muzak, or sell illustrations to Playboy. “But between these black and white poles lay a vast gray (and green!) world of commissions, and I did not know how to chart my course,” he writes in his book, Behind the Lines.

Blechman has since learned. The Ink Tank is accepting more project than ever before -45 so far in 1986 -and many, like the Serenity ad, are animation-live action mixes. “Advertising is dead if it doesn’t attract attention,” says Blechman. “Mixing live action and animation does just that.”

Color Blast From The Past

I remember running out of middle green paint one Friday morning around 1997.

Chances are Cartoon Colour wouldn’t be able to make the shipment for the weekend crew (cel painting -especially on commercials was often a seven day a week affair).

By that time New York Central Art Supply was the only place  you could get the stuff locally.  Pearl Paint still carried black and maybe white.  F&B Ceco carried some other supplies like acetates but even those were in short supply.

So it was a little shocking to see this in Blick on Bond Street.

Maybe they think it’s still 1998, it would have been in relatively high demand with Buzzco, Curious Pictures and Michael Sporn Animation all within a few blocks at the time -not to mention NYU’s always interesting film animation program.

I wonder how much they Cel Vinyl they sell today and who’s buying.

About Last Night

Yesterday afternoon I was telling Christina she should read Signe Baumane’s blog, and she countered with a story of how Signe introduced her to PES at Patrick Smith’s Christmas party when she was interning at Blend Films.

Signe pulled her over, gushing about what a great job she working on Bill Plympton’s “Hair High” and graciously made the introduction.

Anyhow, the point is that Signe is amongst the friendliest, hardest working and (seriously) smartest people in animation.  She gave a presentation of several of her films at The Society of Illustrators last night.

She frames her presentation, like many of her films, with dispassionate talk about sex.

She says: “They say ‘sex sells’.  It’s not true, sex doesn’t sell.  What sells is porn and I don’t do porn.”

Other pieces of wisdom:

“That’s a problem.  I studied philosophy so I can justify whatever shit I make.”

On virginity (probably applicable to her films): “You do it fast, or you don’t do it at all.”

On autobiographic “truth” in her films: “What is the truth?  What is reality? I’m interested in the story.”

The screenings concluded with a brief (two or three minutes) excerpt from her current feature length film in production.  She’s partially funded it by papier mache sculptures, partially with grants from NYSCA and the Jerome Foundation and is currently creeping towards her goal.

The excerpt demonstrated an integration of papier mache models with draw characters -a little reminiscent of “When the Wind Blows” visually.  There wasn’t enough context or development within the sequence to make any statements on narrative.

New York Stuff

There are some weeks in New York when you can fill your social calendar with animation events.

The first of a few good ones was last night at SVA.  Frank Mouris presented some of his films under the auspices of ASIFA-East and Women in Animation.

Also this week, Tale at Galapagos in DUMBO on Thursday.  I haven’t been to Galapagos (in any incarnation) since they were assholes to us on the shoot for Dr. Worm around 1999 but if you don’t hold grudges over unwarranted professional hassles you should attend what looks to be an interesting show.

Then Friday, Patrick Smith is showing his new film at the 93rd Street Y in Tribeca.

Frank Mouris’ talk reminded us how animated film, at one time, was closely connected to experimental film.  A short could have festival success, community acclaim and an appeal to the avant garde.

Provacative For A Reason

Last night Brian gave a talk to Michael Kantor’s class at SVA’s documentary film program.

Meanwhile, I was getting some education.  Gail Levin invited me to see Bill Plympton give a talk at the Writer’s Guild.

Many of us in New York have seen him talk a number of times, but somehow he always manages to be fresh and entertaining even if he’s preaching the same gospel about independent production.

Here told a very funny story of drawing Marilyn Monroe for his friend’s high school student council campaign.  Over the loudspeaker the next day he was called to the principal’s office as “The pornographer Bill Plympton.”  When he returned to his classmates, he was suddenly transformed in their eyes -an “artist”.

I mentioned to him that Gail did a documentary on Marilyn Monroe and he -gracious as always -gave her the drawing.

Here’s a brief clip from his talk:

Too Much Animation Makes You Cranky

Animation screenings are generally exhausting and often discouraging.

This week were the final nights of screenings for the ASIFA East judging.

from “Why Does The Sun Really Shine?”

The rules for judging, if you don’t know, are opaque and borderline nonsensical. One category screens per night, although stragglers and miscues will screen on other nights. People come in late, leave early. Given these variables, it would be good to know exactly how the winners are calculated. Are they averaged? Highest score wins? Either way, both are highly flawed given the loose nature of balloting.

Then there are the craft awards within each category. Voters circle which craft they find a film excellent in. Or they don’t. Or they circle them all. How this is tallied is never revealed, although the manner of filling in the form gets explained several times throughout the evening.

a humorless corporate film from Flickerlab which refused to take its own advice about innovation.

On top of that, a significant number of attendees are SVA students. That’s like letting the Presidential Election hinge on the Florida electorate. To be fair, even with this apparent majority the SVA bloc typically hasn’t held significant sway in the final tally.

My number one personal peeve (the above are all practical problems) with the ASIFA East voting system was largely absent this year: the hooting cheers when certain names are announced to be screened. While I find any cheering at such screening impolitic and improper, applause before a picture even screens establishes a bias of celebrity which is completely unfair to “outsider” films. Superior films which don’t get the inside track routinely miss out on the big ASIFA East show. This is probably typical for any festival/awards show but it doesn’t mean it should be happily accepted.

Tuesday night featured Independent films (and one commercial work less than 2:00).

Tops for the evening was Stephen Neary’s “Let’s Make Out”. Last year, I felt his “Chicken Cowboy” was the best student film. I didn’t even make the connection until it was pointed out later.

Julie Zammarchi’s film “The Passenger” is also good. That screened in Ottawa last year. She’s worked very closely with Suzan Pitt over the years. It’s evident in the design and certain animation tropes but the narrative style and subject matter are wholly her own.

I also appreciated two films from “The Paper Theater”: “Annie’s Circus” and “Puppy’s Super Delicious Valentines Day Biscuits”. They had a charm. Though unpolished, they were convinced of their idiom.

Another annoyance with the festival: a few entries were clearly in the wrong category. They were commissions. Either ASIFA needs to explicate what defines “Independent” or they should be serious about segregating the categories. Miscatagorized pieces are unfair to all the films.

Looking over the list now, there were more “OK” films than I remembered: John Dilworth’s “Rinky Dink” (which is best once we get passed the surface Dilworthisms to core ideas that make up his films), Aaron Hughes & Lisa LaBracio’s “Backwards”, Edmond Hawkins “Spare Time”, Elliot Cowan’s “The Thing in the Distance” and others -all solid. Not enough “great” to make the evening stand out.

Wednesday was sponsored films over two minutes. This one, this was tough.

Mo Willems’ “Don’t Let The Pigeon Drive The Bus”.  One film that didn’t make you feel run over.

Not much in the way of filmmaking. Two Weston Woods pieces based on Mo Willems books were good -Mo’s a brilliant guy, but the directors/animators of each are both talented: Pete List and Karen Villareal.

Buzzco’s “It’s Still Me!” was nice. At 15:00 it pushed patience’s limits, but that’s the nature of a commission -you’ve got requirements to meet. Beyond that, the film (about asphasia) falls back on the most severe forms as an example. It’s not until deep within the piece is it clear there are many forms the disorder can take. It’s a nice film, though.

“Hey, animation screening, what are you going to do to my patience?”

There were a bunch of They Might Be Giants films and pretty much every entry was devoid of filmic narrative opting for either music video-ness or single panel gags cut after cut.

Liesje Kraai and David Cowles “Why Does The Sun Really Shine?” was my favorite of the TMBG videos. Probably a little biased on that, as she works with us sometimes.

Oh, and the first film of the night was -I kid you not -a 14:00 minute film (Flash, ugly) convincing kids to eat broccoli.

Have A Cow!

Bill Plympton premiered his new film “The Cow Who Wanted To Be A Hamburger” right down the street at The Hill Country Barbecue.

One of my favorite aspects of Bill’s films has always been the soundtracks. Maureen McElheron has been his longtime collaborator. She played a few songs.

Nicole Renaud is providing music for Bill’s upcoming feature. She played two short sets on her accordion -with an almost one of a kind see through casing.

Bill is a gracious host and ran a good show. Every set was smartly introduced and ran smoothly.

He also made sure to bring his team on stage for a bow.

The film was a bit of a graphic departure, but still recognizably Plympton. The strong blacks and deep, flat colors are a nice look. After decades of great work, he still keeps experimenting.

Everything is Provisional

In the early part of this decade one of animation’s greatest living artists was living in New York as Columbia University’s resident artist.

That this escaped the “animation community” is evidence of the insular, self referential natures of all groups.

Fortunately, the insular, self referential “art community” has not failed to take notice of William Kentridge.  Nearly a decade after his landmark exhibition at the Guggenheim SoHo, the MoMA now has  an even more impressive, more expansive show (originally mounted by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art).

Here’s the official exhibition site.

Many who work in animation will have gallery shows in attempt to expand their audience.  Often, this work has solid technical foundation and a level of “appeal” that animators are trained to go after.  Kentridge’s work -his drawings hang in the main galleries of the show -have power.  Strong charcoals, kinetic viscera –impact.  First and foremost, Kentridge is a great artist.  Moving pictures is simply his primary means of communication.

Three of the galleries were wholly new to me -mostly work created in the last decade.  They mark a departure from what we may know as “Kentridge films”.  Journey to the Moon is part homage to Georges Melies, but more a stepping stone for the artist to move into the otherworldly.  This pays off with his stirring treatment of Die Zauberflote in the next gallery which projects on 3 channels in succession.  Two of the projections are even in a sort of 3D.

It’s an extraordinary exhibit.  The curators, the architects, the engineers, everyone who put it together should be proud.  Give yourself at least 3 hours to take it in, or plan on multiple trips.

The gallery for the older Soho and Felix series (which contains my favorite image of his -“Her Absence Filled The World”) has this statement from the artist:

“Everything can be saved.  Everything is provisional. A prior action is rescued by that which follows. A drawing abandoned is revived by the next drawing… The smudges of erasure thicken time in the film, but they also serve as a record of the days and months spent making the film -a record of thinking in slow motion.”

 Here’s a bootleg clip from a theatrical performance of The Magic Flute directed by Kentridge, embedding is disabled. CLICK HERE to have your mind blown