Archive for February, 2009

What Does Any Of It Matter?

Posted in Uncategorized on February 16, 2009 by jh montgomery

What does any of this matter, my past two blogs? The animation companies get to make what they want to, they make money (to an extent), and the kids that they’re targeted at are entertained. So why should I care? Am I just speaking because I like the feel of air leaving my lungs? Why make a big deal of most people don’t?

First, let me see if I can identify certain executive philosophies that go into the cartoons that are made. They are deeply conservative, not in the sense that they are socially conservative, but conservative in the sense that there’s no innovation, or that innovation is, at best, a copy of a previous success. There’s a constant drive to create the next (name of popular franchise here), and not because of the love of the characters involved, or the desire to write a quality story using those characters, but to bank on name recognition. That’s why there are currently 4 Shrek movies in existence, with a 5th in development I do believe. Not because Shrek is such a beloved character, or because the writers had enough material to constitute five movies worth, but because Dreamworks made Phat $tack$ of ciz-nash off of the Shrek branding. Dreamworks knew the first one was worth a mint, so they contract a second, and a third, and so on. The second one performing the best, and then each successive one performing worse and worse. In fact, there’s a good chance that a movie will perform in the red in the theaters, but it will still get made. Why?

Merchandising. With each Shrek movie made, there are toys, pajamas, books, DVDs, stuffed animals, clothing, cards, video games, music CDs, lunch boxes, sleeping bags, stickers, snack and food branding, variously branded toiletries for young’n’s, pup tents for kids, iPod skins, earbuds, jewelry, and happy meal tie-ins. I’m sure there are things I didn’t even list that I have seen before. I tried to mentally go through Target department by department and list the contents therein. At any rate, merchandising is another Disney inheritance. Back when Walt rolled out his first animated feature, all of his film buddies told him he was crazy, there’s no way an animated feature will succeed. Walt replied that the money was in the merchandising, and not the film itself. The prospect of an animated feature not succeeding today (no matter how abysmal) seems totally unintuitive of what we have successfully observed.

So, it’s more or less the philosophy of merchandising that prohibits most experimental and creative properties (animated or otherwise) from being moved. Whenever a person approaches a major animation studio with a concept or a script, the studio wants to find out who they can market the movie to (like how Coraline got marketed to a younger audience than is responsibly acceptable), and if there isn’t a demographic, or there’s not a lot of space for cross promotions, interest wanes, and chances are the project gets axed. If one is willing to search, they can find many accounts of entire crews being assembled, many important names being attached to a project, but the project being give the red light because there wasn’t enough visible room, in the executive’s eyes, for viable marketing. Hence the large influx of independently created movies today.

Because of this desire to bank on previous success, companies are hesitant to try out an untested formula. Joe Murray (Rocko’s Modern Life), John K. (Ren and Stimpy), and Johnen Vazquez (Invader Zim) have often discussed the difficulty they had getting their properties on the air. Despite the fact that all three (and others not listed here) proved to be runaway smash hits, companies still proceed with this tentative and creativity squashing method.

I think there’s also more of an unspoken societal view that the public at large holds that the cartoon, by its very nature, is an inferior format. Since it’s innately inferior, certain things like crappy characterization, poor plot progression and sloppy writing are all excusable. It’s similar to how we don’t hold fan fiction up to the same scrutiny we hold literature; because one is an amateur attempt, and the other is professional. This philosophy assumes that cartoons are strictly a kid’s medium, while ignoring things like the fact that the most influential cartoons have been universally praised, such as original Warner Brother’s cartoons (which set the standard for what’s considered “cartoony”), and Ren and Stimpy (whose influence is still seen in any cartoon shown on Nickelodeon after 1994).

I would also venture to say that there’s a societal belief that kids are incapable of dealing with subtlety, which is totally inaccurate if you’ve ever actually dealt with kids. Kids are remarkably perceptive. As an example: I remember watching an informercial with my brother, he was five or maybe six, for some mixing implement. Later on, my brother was telling my mom how she needed to buy this mixing implement because it could do this or that thing that he knew she often did in her own cooking. He himself connected concept A with concept B with no prompting from any source. Because kids are so obviously incapable of handling subtlety, we have to spell things out for them, which is why cartoons have so much preaching.

That is some relatively new thinking among human kind. Think back almost three thousand years ago to the ancient Greeks. What did they do for fun? They listened to orators and storytellers, people who told stories or gave speeches. This was big entertainment back in the good old days. One of the best storytellers was a guy named Homer who made a couple of epic poems known as The Iliad and The Odyssey. These were seriously popular, as can be evidenced by the fact that they are still read today. If we think back to an ancient campfire, everyone’s there. Including the kids. Before anyone says anything, the point of this isn’t how kids were treated, so a statement along the lines of how the kids were there, but there wasn’t any kid’s entertainment might be true, but doesn’t refute my point. My point is that children were with the adults absorbing the adult entertainment. If you went to a temple or synagogue, the kids and the adults would all be in the same place watching whatever play, or hearing whatever oration. And it was this way, or close enough to it, until recent times, when we started making philosophies that said kids can’t handle subtlety, and they certainly can’t handle what we can, so we have to make watered down and cheapened content for the kids. And much in the same way jazz eventually resulted in death metal, and there is little resemblance between the two, Disney eventually resulted in Dora the Explorer, and there’s little resemblance between the two.

So, what does any of it matter? First, it matters because cartoons have become a platform for politics, and it’s not fair. Even though I think most kids ignore or just completely do not care what the preached and pathos message is, but it’s not fair because these companies are preying on a kid’s desire to see something wacky and turning it into something political. Even though I bet the ratio of kids who personalize the messages and those who don’t, say 1 to 15, is pretty low, it’s still unfair that they’re kind of being preyed upon by the studios.

The second is that it seems symptomatic of a failing philosophy. I’m not certain what exactly that philosophy is, and I couldn’t point to it by name, but it does certain things, like making us preach to kids through cartoons, like remaking the same thing over and over to make just a little bit more, like avoiding the unproven because it’s untested. It’s very much a blanding process that seems to homogenize culture. And this philosophy isn’t exclusive to cartoons, and it’s not a cartoon philosophy, it’s a philosophy that seems to dictate a number of things, of which cartoons is one.

And the third is that I just kind of miss it. Don’t you? Don’t you miss an old good Disney cartoon? Don’t you miss a bizarre and nonsensical Bugs Bunny cartoon? How about when there was more than one cartoon studio pumping out quality character driven shorts? There used to be Disney, WB, Fleischer, MGM, Upo, and Bashki. All of them turning out shorts, 5-7 minute cartoons, based on characters, and then engineering ridiculous stories around these characters. I miss the creativity and the variety. Half hour shows can be good, feature length is rarely good, but those shorts were gold. Nothing has achieved that popularity or that notoriety and name recognition. When was the last time you saw a Popeye cartoon? Betty Boop? Mighty Mouse? Probably the 50s, and yet everyone still knows who they are. They still appear on clothes, backpacks, dolls, toys, and lunch boxes. They haven’t done anything new in close to 60 years, but everyone knows who they are. I’m not saying that these characters should be brought back, because we’d screw it up. They were characters made by people of the time for the people of the time, and in many regards, can only be understood in the context of the time, but I am saying that perhaps we should try to recover a little bit of that creative energy and that experimental philosophy, and then let the creative folk do what they do best.

That’s what I’m talking about.

This One is Much More Opinion Than Fact (Coraline Continued)

Posted in Uncategorized on February 10, 2009 by jh montgomery

Today I should be able to combine story and moral(ising). I don’t think it’ll be anywhere near as long as the brief history of animation we ended up with yesterday. Ideally, I wanted to fit it all into one post, and maybe I should have just focused on Coraline and put all the history stuff in a separate post, but this is what it is. So here we go.

Nowadays, a cartoon can’t get made if it doesn’t have one. This is another inheritance from Disney. My first reaction was to say that as people we can’t tell a story without also telling a moral. After thinking on that, however, I just think it’s a tendency and not a rule.

To use cartoons as an example, observe classic Warner Brother’s cartoons, by which I mean the old 5-7 minute shorts featuring the classic WB characters: Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and the like. Very few of them had any kind of moral to teach,and when they did, the moral served to aid the story, not impede it, and this is where I draw exception.

Probably 90% of the Gold and Silver Age cartoons (30s-50s, so named because of their impact on animation, their popularity, and their willingness to experiment. By contrast, think of the modern cartoon scene as the Lead Age.), including Disney, just told absurd stories. Things that were intensely improbably, impossible, and simply put, cartoony. When Disney started rolling out the feature length cartoons, cartoons began to contain morals.

At first, it wasn’t such a big deal, and the morals didn’t act as impediments and this was because Disney was simply animating already classic stories, such as Snow White, Pinocchio, and Peter Pan. Since they were classics, the moral was already pretty central to the story, therefore there was less of a burden on Disney’s part. It’s a little bit harder, however, to tell when cartoons became really preachy. The Disney Distillation art style started to pop up in the 70s, and as long as Disney was animating already classic stories, there was less of a chance of being preached at by our cartoons. It probably started when Disney started to write their own stories, which began to happen in the 80s, but really became an ear-sore in the 90s. That’d be my guess. Pixar, however, has raised preaching like it’s Sunday morning to an art form.

Let’s analyze Wall-E here. I love the movie dearly, I really do, but the last third of the movie is as bad as entering an unplanned detox and realizing that you’ve run out of rum. The first two thirds are as subtle as bad ham (you know how you have to have three or four people smell it before you decide it’s bad? I mean it as a compliment). It’s so still and eerie as you watch Wall-E navigate this ruined planet. The movie just parcels out these wonderfully subtle clues as to where everyone went.

Then you meet the humans, and the disappointment starts to slowly build. At first, you can’t notice it, then by the last twenty minutes you’re hit by a brick in the face about working together, and how somehow that’ll compensate for a small triviality like a life time of laziness, being self-centered, and ignorance.

Just watch from 1:30 to about 3:30. That’s all I really needed to show.

I suppose I should define my terms here. Moralizing is when a character, or characters, has a soap box moment where they more or less just state the moral. We’ll get to that in a minute. What Wall-E actually suffers from is pathos. Pathos is, by dictionary definition, the evoking of emotions through a piece of work, whether it be literature, music, speech, play or art. For the sake of this definition, however, it’s the evoking of emotion through a means other than actual emotion, such as consistent repetition of an idea related to the moral, or overly saccharine emotion, or the representation of an idea not actually stated, but so infectious that it overcomes all obstacles without actually addressing them. The pudgy jello humans just kind of magically perform, because that’s how powerful the idea is (even though only two people on that whole ship even caught wind of the idea – that’s how powerful it is), with very little struggle or difficulty. This is a bizarre non-sequitur that forces us to suspend disbelief in a way that we would reject in any other medium. We give cartoons leeway because it’s a cartoon, though there’s nothing actually cartoony about this jump in believability we’re expected to make. It’s like letting a deaf person be exempt from learning how to write because they can’t hear. Doesn’t make sense.

Then we have Kung Fu Panda that will moralize at you, do it some more for good measure, and just in case you missed it, moralize some more. The first Spider-Man is also guilty of this (with great power comes great responsibility is repeated like a Buddhist mantra).

I tried for longer than is probably healthy to find when Po first discovers that “there is no secret ingredient.” I found a website with a Spanish dub that had it, but that’s all I could find. As a consequence, this will be longer than it should be. In this segment, we only hear it once, but in the segment before it, we hear it at least 3 or 4 times. It hinges around Po’s father who has this great soup, and has a great well guarded family secret ingredient. Po has been trying to get this thing called the dragon scroll throughout the whole movie, which will supposedly hold the secret to defeating this village’s greatest nemesis. Po finally gets it, only to see that it’s a blank sheet of reflective gold leaf, disappointed and distraught, he leaves the temple only to, DEUS EX MACHINA!!!!, run into his dad, who chooses the moment of his village’s diaspora to tell Po that he’s old enough to know the secret ingredient. The secret ingredient is that there’s no secret ingredient. That’s right, the dad then hops up on his soap box and delivers a soliloquy about assigning value is what makes something great, which then prompts Po to have his own revelation that there’s no special technique to be bestowed. He’s just naturally special (gag). So then he tells his dad a few times that there’s no secret ingredient, tells his friends, tells his master, tells anyone who will listen, and I’m pretty sure that by the end of the movie, I have to graduate to two hands in order to track how many times I’ve been told that there’s no secret ingredient. And then the clip right up there happens, which makes no sense in the grand scheme of the film, because Po has had one day of training, and at the end of the montage, you’re not entirely certain that he was actually trained. Right before their epic fight, Po kicks Tai Lung’s ass by falling down the stairs. Yup. Falling down the stairs, literally falling, as in trip, and landing fortuitously on Tai Lung over and over again. Upon reaching the bottom, they have this epic fight where Tai Lung explodes by getting his pinky tweaked. So, it doesn’t matter that Po had no training, or that everyone else who had dedicated their entire lives to the craft lost, and it doesn’t matter that Po never really actually exerted effort at any point, because that’s how strong the moral is. Strong enough to cause events to happen.

I realized that I said I would talk about the Iron Giant, and haven’t. Of course, the entire format of these blogs became greatly altered from what I had initially imagined. I suppose that in order to really impress how much I liked Coraline, I feel like I have to draw a very specific back drop as a sharp contrast. Perhaps I’ll talk about the Iron Giant some other time.

To get back to Coraline: if I had to take a guess at the moral, it’d be something about the dangers of being greedy. To not want to too much more or different than what you do have. The dangers of boredom, and how it can lead to vanity.

It’s not that Coraline doesn’t have a moral. It certainly does, it’s just that the moral is never expressly said, and it’s so central to the story that you have to deconstruct the story a little to identify the moral by name. And it’s really good. It’s much more like it used to be. If story were a path, the moral used to be the bricks used to pave that path, when a moral was to be had. Sometimes that path was more like a wild wooden path, covered by leaves and lined by trees. The standard cartoon nowadays is more like a sidewalk fallen into great disrepair: these large ugly moralizing boulders stuck in the center of the path that you have to edge around if you want to enjoy your walk.

I guess these blogs became a history of and critique of cartoons, and how Coraline is dissimilar to the current tradition. If I had had the opportunity to write this whole blog as one piece and edit it, I would have certainly made the history and critique their own blogs, and Coraline a separate blog. At any rate, I really enjoyed Coraline. A lot. Like I said, better than Wall-E, a universe of difference between Coraline and Kung Fu Panda, and the only movie made in the last two decades that can compete with it would be Iron Giant. You should really go see it, and while I don’t know if it’s necessary to see it in 3D, it was a pretty cool feature.

Caroline, and a Brief History of Animation.

Posted in Uncategorized on February 8, 2009 by jh montgomery

My darling wife and I saw Coraline last night. I loved the hell out of this movie. I can’t get over it. I want to see it again, and then again, and then maybe one more time after that. So, for those of you not in the know, here’s a trailer:

I do have to say that the trailer seems to market it to the really young, maybe 6+, whereas it should have been marketed to the 12ish+. There were a number of smaller children there who got pretty scared, and I can honestly see why. The trailer doesn’t show you some of the scarier things: like a guy who gets really fat and twisted, or another guy who has a smile stitched into his face. I kind of think that maybe the team that made the movie went to the executives and the executives thought that the only way to recoup their investment was to market it towards young kids because, as we all know, cartoons are for kids. Duh. You’d have to be some kind of retard to not pick up on this simple universal truth. I mean, if cartoons aren’t for kids, try to explain the existence and populairty of South Park or Beavis and Butthead (this last statement is an ironic one meant to show the ridiculosity of thinking cartoons are for kids, and semi-bemoaning the fact that there are few cartoons made today that don’t bring themselves down to the level of a 4 year old).

Mis-marketing aside, it was good. Probably the best cartoon I’ve seen since 1998’s Iron Giant. Even better than Wall-E, and I really loved Wall-E. Mostly. In fact, I think I’ll compare Coraline against what is probably my favorite animated movie of all time, the Iron Giant, the last cartoon I saw before Coraline, Kung Fu Panda, and the last good cartoon I saw before Coraline, Wall-E, to give a sense of why Coraline was the better (if only slightly [though it’s more than slight in some cases]) movie. I’ll start with the art, or the style of the movie, move to the story, and then the part that I hate the most: the moral of the story and how it’s portrayed. I’ll even talk about the other animated features that had trailers before Coraline and how I think they’ll play out. I’m going to warn you that this was originally an analysis of Coraline versus other animated movies, but it kind of just kept expanding and expanding until it became more of an analysis of the history of animation.

With the style, Wall-E was actually pretty stylish for a Pixar cartoon. It had some very intelligent and interesting designs while maintaining a level of functionality. Even things like the ridiculous and overblown the machine used to launch EVE had purpose in addition to the design. But the people were typical Pixar, that is to say that they were incredibly generic and almost devoid of life. Back in the 40s, there was no standard of animation. Animators were being very experimental and constantly playing with ways to make things work. Eventually, Disney figured out a sort of “canon” for doing it. The types of shapes to use, and Walt was a very conservative guy, so he had his animators develop a sort of universal way to do things. Pretty much a template that could be applied to any character, no matter their size or shape. Even the characters were boiled down to types: the young boy type, the princess type, the evil fat guy type, the bumbling idiot type. I guess a way to think about it might be like creating a character in a game like WoW or Tony Hawk: it might boast this robust engine for creating many different characters, but it’s all based on types and templates. Disney even went as far as to specify facial expressions. Happy smiles can only look like this, mean eyes can only look like this, a laugh can only look like this, and so on. Disney became very popular because despite having a generic universalized system of animation, it was very high quality and very smooth. This was still back in the day when an animation team’s color palate still had more options than brights and pastels, so the cartoons were able to achieve rich, earthy, complex color mixtures. Observe:

This is a shot from Sleeping Beauty. The colors are rich and earthy and have a decided thematic palate with just a few pastels thrown in to help bring visual continuity to the picture. the first thing you notice is the owl’s eyes, follow it up to Aurora’s face, over to the birds, along the branch and into the background. Very subdued and matured.

Here we have Meet The Robinsons. It’s one of Disney’s latest. The colors are a train wreck. The scene is so busy with no hierarchy of form or color. Everything is competing for your attention, and there’s no starting or ending points for your eyes to rest on, nor is there a logical path for your eyes to follow. It might be unfair to apply this same method to a live action movie as there’s much more room for incidentally crappy shots, but in animation, every scene has been pored over something approaching 100 times.

At some point in the future, probably the 70s because that’s when all taste started to deteriorate, companies began distilling this Disney style. The California School of the Arts became a big proponent of (what I refer to as) The Disney Distillation Style, where they use Disney’s formula and distill it one more to make it even more bland, and turned out such folk as Don Bluth, who in turn made the style even more popular and people began mimicking that style, which was already a mimic, so then we had people mimicking the mimic. Pixar also mimics this mimic, and as a result, they can churn out a movie that’s brilliant in every regard, but has people that are completely uninteresting, such as Wall-E, The Incredibles, or the incredibly awful Ratatouille and Cars. This isn’t to say that you’re a bad person if you like these cartoons. Most people probably don’t even realize this level of distinction even exists, and most people would argue that you’re some kind of loser if you do realize it. Those people suck, but having said that, I like more than half of both Don Bluth and Pixar’s cartoons. The stories generally make up for the crappy art, and they’re generally fun. Here are some samples:

The Incredibles family, all of them with the same smile, just different degrees of open to represent “different” facial expressions.

Charlie from All Dogs go to Heaven, with a very similar smile to Mr. Incredible

Po from Kung Fu Panda with a clone of Charlie smile.

Focus on the boy here, but he’s got the same smile as everyone else, and half of them are different species.

4 different movies, and 2 of them I’d even call favorites, yet they still suffer from Disney Distillation. A case of the DDs. Compare to these:

Above we have bugs. All three the same character, all three types of smiles, but each very different and very specific. Two of them even by the same artist. Again, compare:

Again, 3 different smiles, the same characters.

Coraline by necessity didn’t have this Disney Distillation Problem. Since every puppet had to be custom made, and probably half of them had to have a unique expression made for every expression, the expressions tended more towards the unique than the predictable. Of course, puppets like Coraline and Mother had repeat expressions because the puppet had to use the same expression heads. For those of you not in the know, that’s how it’s done in stop animation (of which Coraline is). For puppets like Jack Skellington, Sally, Coraline, and Mother, each head holds a static facial expression (one head might be a toothy grin, another a frown), and not just facial expression, but mouth motion too. So that means they have to make a head for every possible phonetic sound per puppet. Not only that, but every phonetic sound per emotion. So a P sound for happy, sad, and angry. And some shapes can double for others. You can probably use the P mouth for B as well. All said, you have something like 50 different heads, all with empty eye sockets as the eyes you can just pop in and out, substituting in the eyes for different emotions and motions like blinking or looking back and forth. In the course of the movie, they are continuously popping the heads on and off to create speech for the puppets. Pretty laborious, but it means that each character is going to have uniquely fashioned expressions exclusive to that puppet. Other puppets, such as Father, have a moldable mouth. It’s a mouth with a wire running inside of it that you just adjust to create the different sounds, and this adds a whole different layer of exclusivity because a person can’t mold the word “cat” in the same way twice ever. The overall look is eye catching speech and specific motion.

All that aside, Coraline was intensely creative. Every object in the movie was custom made by hand. No prefab anything in the entire movie as far as sets, props, and characters are concerned. It had a very intelligent use of color, applying brights when it was necessary to dazzle, and not just as a method of operation, and the designs were just simply cool. In the beginning you watch a hand made out of needles, regular sewing needles, stitch together a canvas doll. Later, a giant mechanical Praying Mantis is used to plant a garden. Everything was very stylish and Burton-esque, though Burton himself wasn’t involved in the movie. I think for Halloween, I want to dress up as the character YB. Such a simple and eye catching design.

What I can’t find is Wybie’s helmet which was a welding mask with a skull painted on it.

I honestly didn’t expect this blog to be that long, so I think I’ll cover the rest in another blog. Maybe 2 if each of the three categories takes this long.