Category Archives: Animation

Lowbrow Monster Mash

Late notice, but I’ll have a watercolor piece in tonight’s Monster Mash art show at the Lowbrow Emporium on South Lamar. If you’re in Austin, drop by between 7 and 11pm and say hi. (Address and other details on “the poster by Jason Chalker”:http://austinsketchsquad.blogspot.com/2007/09/they-did-mashit-was-monster-mash.html.) The art is from participants and friends of the Austin Sketch Squad, some of whom will be doing live art at the show. There will also be free beer and candy!

I snapped a “photo of my desk with art stuff”:http://www.flickr.com/photos/manton/1558857105/ while I was preparing for the show. I forgot to scan the final art, which sadly didn’t come out nearly as nice as my first sketch, but I’ll get a picture of that tonight. It was fun to work on and a nice break from late-night programming this week.

STAPLE! 2007 weekend wrap-up

“STAPLE! The Independent Media Expo”:http://www.staple-austin.org/ was last Saturday and it turned out great. The “animation panel I wrote about last week”:http://www.manton.org/2007/02/animation_panel.html was a lot of fun and didn’t seem to suffer too much from my amateur moderating abilities. The projector worked, the films were great, and we filled an hour and a half with questions from the audience. Special thanks to “Damon”:http://www.damonclinkscales.com/ for working the lights and providing feedback afterwards.

My only regret is that I didn’t take a few minutes to snap photos or set up a video camera in the back to capture it. I left my camera in the car the whole day. Luckily other attendees took pictures of the rest of the show. Here are Flickr sets from “Freddie Avalos”:http://www.flickr.com/photos/freddieavalos/sets/72157594570835464/, “Toby Craig”:http://www.flickr.com/photos/ithinkican/sets/72157594574373510/, and “Marianne Ways”:http://flickr.com/photos/mways/sets/72157594569262131/. Update: Damon “snapped a picture”:http://flickr.com/photos/digitalnomad/413875252/in/photostream/ after all!

Sunday night was the “Animation Show”:http://www.animationshow.com/ at the Paramount and Don Hertzfeldt answered questions afterwards. His latest film may be my favorite of his yet. I worked with Robert at the Animation Show on cross-promotion between their show and STAPLE!, and they were so great to work with I hope we can join forces again next time.

I came away from the whole weekend inspired. Monday a new idea for an animated short film hit me. I think it’s time to dust off the animation table again.

Animation panel and web site for STAPLE! 2007

“Chris”:http://ycrtft.rethunkmedia.com/ and I headed over to Northcross Mall yesterday to take a final look at the conference center rooms before next week’s STAPLE! Expo. Although I’ve been on the planning committee since the very beginning of the conference over 3 years ago and actively involved for each of the previous 2 shows, this year is a little special because I’ve been organizing a panel on animation to complement the mostly comic book focused show. We have three great local animators this year: Aaron Romo, Evan Cagle, and Lance Myers. See the “STAPLE! guests page”:http://www.staple-austin.org/guests/ for more information on their work and our other featured speakers.

I also redesigned the web site last week, late Thursday night. In order to accommodate some CSS improvements and images from our new program, I had to abandon a few things from last year’s excellent design by “John Rubio”:http://www.johnrubio.com/ (who also did the logo). I hope to bring back elements of the old design for next year, though. There’s just not enough time in the day, and March is days away. I hate you February, for being so short.

Hair High at Alamo

Plympton sketch Bill Plympton was in town tonight for the Texas premiere of Hair High at Alamo Drafthouse downtown. I’ve been lucky enough to see each of his films in the theater, and this is definitely his best yet. It has actually been finished for a while. I posted about it back in 2002 when he started production. Before the showing I asked him about making an appearance at STAPLE! this coming March but it doesn’t look like his schedule will allow it. He’s one of about 4 animators I hoped to approach about showing their films at STAPLE!, in addition to some great local talent we’ll have speaking and showing their work.

Enrico Casarosa interview

In my “San Francisco podcast”:http://www.manton.org/2006/09/san_francisco_podcast.html I mentioned Enrico Casarosa and “Sketchcrawl”:http://www.sketchcrawl.com/. I really wanted to interview him, but there just wasn’t time to contact him and arrange it. Luckily, Illustrationmundo’s Iconic podcast has conducted an “interview with Enrico”:http://www.illustrationmundo.com/audio/artist/85/ and they discuss Sketchcrawl at great length.

Also, check out Enrico’s ongoing watercolor comic, “The Venice Chronicles”:http://enricocasarosa.com/wordpress.1/?page_id=453. He just posted page 11 and 12.

Cars

There are a lot of computer animated films out this year. It was inevitable, with Disney shutting down its 2d division a few years ago and all of Hollywood getting on the 3d bandwagon. Some will be successes, some failures — just like their live-action counterparts — and that’s fine.

I’ve seen Cars twice now. Perhaps it’s because a certain 2-year-old I know says “zooma!” more than any word in his limited vocabulary, but this little Pixar film is really growing on me.

Meanwhile, it looks like “2d is officially back at Disney”:http://www.laughingplace.com/News-ID510530.asp. Can’t wait.

Animation history, worth the wait

I received two great surprises this week. In the mail came the 9th issue of “Animation Blast”:http://www.animationblast.com/, Amid Amidi’s magazine on the art and history of animation artists. This started as a smaller quarterly magazine, but the latest issue has grown to over 100 pages. It’s an extremely high quality, ad-free book. I think I placed an order for Animation Blast #9 over 3 years ago, and it was continually delayed due to Amid’s other responsibilities. No worries, though, because the book is beautiful.

The other related surprise was a new episode of the “Animation Podcast”:http://www.animationpodcast.com/. The last one was over 2 months ago, but again, the quality is so high and the information so valuable that it makes my day when a new one drops into iTunes. The 17 episodes so far, if taken together, represent a huge wealth of animation history, rivaling most DVDs and books in my collection. They are probably the only podcasts I subscribe to that I would archive to audio CDs to make sure I always have access to them.

Comic-Con, Scanner, and independent shorts

Comic-Con San Diego has started. For a humorous look at the kinds of people you might see walking the show floor, check out the excellent series of “recent sketches on the Story Boredom blog”:http://storyboredom.blogspot.com/2006_07_01_storyboredom_archive.html. I’ve never been to the convention, but have some friends who go most every year. Some of those people also worked on “A Scanner Darkly”:http://www.scannerdarklymovie.com/, which opened last weekend in wider release, banking an impressive $5000 per theater with a #9 opening at the box office. I saw the film last weekend and enjoyed it, especially the last half which seemed less burdened by unnecessary Linklater-ish dialog. In general I’m not a big rotoscoping fan, but the style held my attention and was well-executed.

In other animation news, the National Film Board of Canada has “put many of their classic films online”:http://www.nfb.ca/animation/objanim/en/films/ (via “Peter Merholz”:http://www.peterme.com/archives/000758.html). Also see “this beautiful little film”:http://www.skyvu.net/film/tree_qt_lg.htm by CalArts student “Ian Worrel”:http://ianworrel.blogspot.com/. Despite what the big studios do, I love that traditional animation is thriving at schools and with independent animators.

Creative professionals

My friend “John Rubio”:http://www.johnrubio.com/ has launched a new site: “CREATEaPro”:http://www.createapro.com/. A steady flow of good essays is already filling up the site. His latest, “10 Essential Tips to Becoming a Successful Creative Pro”:http://www.createapro.com/2006/07/10/10-essential-tips-to-becoming-a-more-successful-creative-pro/, is equally applicable to a wide range of disciplines, not just designers, illustrators, animators, or other artists the site is aimed at.

I like this paragraph from his introductory post:

“If I could go back, I would have paid more attention. I would have started my education not then, but at 8, when I first discovered the blackroom they had stashed behind my uncle Richard’s light table. I would have spent more time studying the racks of lead type before dismissing them as just things that got my hands and homemade clothes covered in ink.”

It underscores what seems to be the main theme of the site: get working and stay confident.

Sometimes I worry that I wasted too much time with trivial stuff, pushing away time for what is really important. But then I’ll encounter an artist or visionary who got a late start and still made the best of it. It’s never too late.

Unless you listen to “John Kricfalusi”:http://johnkstuff.blogspot.com/2006/05/animation-school-lessons-do-you-want.html: “After 24 if you haven’t already become really good, you will stagnate and your powers of learning and your rebellious youthful attitude will have died.”

Disney buys Pixar

It was made official today. The rumor only surfaced a week ago, but in that time many people have gone from surprise and skepticism to hope that maybe it could be great for both companies. For Pixar, it might mean more creative control over their characters and sequels, plus not having to worry about distribution or settling for a partner without the reach into merchandising and vacation spots that Disney has. Interestingly, John Lasseter will also advise on new theme park attractions.

In the old days under Walt, it was common for artists to move between short films, features, and Disneyland design. Walt had a knack for seeing the best skills in people and using them wherever they could be most effective. He also had an instinct for story, a relentless pursuit of quality, and of what people would want to see, or how to sell it. Steve Jobs shares more than a few of these qualities, even if his management style at Pixar has been to delegate more than micromanage. Could Jobs pull another NeXT and infuse Disney with Pixar management and culture, or will he be content to sit on the board and coordinate deals with Apple for video content? Who knows.

For Disney, the benefits of the deal are pretty obvious, since all of the Pixar films have been huge money-makers. What’s less clear is what will happen to all the films currently in production at Disney. We have to assume they will continue mostly unchanged. Disney had a rough and controversial transition to 3d, with many layoffs and studio closures, but they did make the transition and this deal will probably upset that just a little.

There is also still that dream that with a leader (Lasseter) who appreciates traditional 2d animation, Disney might even buy back some of those old animation desks and give 2d another try. Although some of the great directors of the 2nd golden age at Disney have left (such as Ron Clements and John Musker of The Little Mermaid and Aladdin), Disney still has many 2d-trained directors, and now so does Pixar (Brad Bird), with enough 2d fans throughout both companies to form another studio branch entirely.

I read a bunch of weblogs by artists at Disney and Pixar now, so hopefully their views will start to trickle in too. Good luck to everyone at both studios.

Bring me the head of Charlie Brown

Tonight ABC aired the original Charlie Brown Christmas special yet again. That thing never gets old. The animation is limited and the characters always off model from one scene to the next, but it has great voices and characters and heart.

This seems a perfect opportunity to link to Bring Me the Head of Charlie Brown, a hilarious CalArts student film that I first saw linked from Jim Hull’s excellent blog, Steward Street. Every person who has hosted the movie has been shutdown by their web host due to bandwidth usage. Luckily it’s now up on ifilm.com. The short is made even more amusing if you contrast it with the animation style of the original Charlie Brown specials: the CalArts film has much fuller animation and better lip-sync. Even so, I wouldn’t want anything about Charlie Brown Christmas changed.

Set unreasonable deadlines

Damon and I have been discussing how time constraints can encourage creativity. I hinted at this in my first NaNoWriMo post, and it’s something I’ve been trying on other projects at work. Of course the concept is all through what 37signals is doing.

A few weeks ago there was a web application I wanted to write. I estimated it would take a couple of weeks to knock in the basic functionality. A small project, but big enough that it would have to be juggled with other priorities. And the requirements would need to be discussed with other members of the team, which might mean a quick death at the hands of committee-led design.

Encouraged by Willie over that weekend, we said let’s just do it and see what happens. Monday morning I asked myself: could I implement most of the application… before lunch? Because if I couldn’t, the project would still probably be sitting at zero lines of code. Luckily the app was a simple discussion system, and Rails was a particularly good fit for it.

In the latest The Writing Show podcast, J Wynia talks about why NaNoWriMo works. He said the biggest problem writers are faced with is the blank page. NaNoWriMo forces you to start writing immediately, because otherwise you won’t have a chance of finishing 50,000 words in a month. And something magic happens when you’ve written the first sentence: before you know it stories and characters are flowing and you’ve got a half dozen pages or more. If you waited until the first page of the novel had been fully thought out in your mind, you’d still be looking at a blank page.

Kathy Sierra wrote about creativity on speed, but I take issue with part of her post. I see speed in development work (C++, Ruby, whatever) as a good thing when it forces you to do something you would not otherwise be able to do because the task was too daunting. But speed in art is something else entirely. The latter is the whole subject of Betty Edwards’ classic book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. The idea is that by working quickly (gesture drawing, for example), you draw on instinct and what you are seeing, and less on what you think you know about how something looks.

I was first introduced to this concept in animation through the books of Shamus Culhane. It resonated with me immediately not just because I knew it was true — it matched my own experience with life drawing — but because he first discovered this while working on an old 1930s Mickey and Pluto short (Hawaiian Holiday) that I remember fondly as a kid (I still have the VHS copy). In some ways the high-speed drawing technique works even better in animation because you are already talking about time. The faster you work the closer the process itself resembles the final product on screen.

While building software is definitely an art — especially the process of crafting the user interface, or just bootstrapping an idea from nothing through brainstorming — I don’t think programming benefits from speed in the same way that art does. With software development the main benefit you get from working fast is breaking through roadblocks, simplifying, and getting things done. The creativity is a result of forcing yourself to think of things in a new way.

Wallace and Gromit

Art blogs screenshot What a great film. To prepare I dusted off my old Laserdisc with the three original Wallace and Gromit short films, but the feature equals and surpasses those films in every way. Thoroughly enjoyable.

Aardman Animations fans should also seek out Creating 3d Animation, a combination behind-the-scenes and how-to book out a few years ago with great stuff on model construction and movement. In the age of computer animation it takes some passion to break the mold and work hand-drawn, but even more rare is the artist who wants to follow in Nick Park’s footsteps. It’s great to see the art-form of stop-motion come alive again to hopefully inspire a new set of filmmakers.

Speaking of old school, just today I saw that Hans Bacher has a weblog. I’ll never forget seeing his art from the Mulan book years ago. The man is a master at composition and effortless landscapes.

And like a lot of animators new to blogging, he uses Blogger. If you look at my NetNewsWire subscriptions (right), you’ll see an interesting trend of Blogger and LiveJournal icons. I’m not sure what that means, if anything.

Corpse Bride

Finally I had a chance to see Corpse Bride last night. Caught it at the Alamo Drafthouse, which is the only theater smart enough to show short films and other theme-appropriate clips before shows. Last night they played Vincent (Tim Burton’s stop-motion film before he left Disney), and Devil Went Down to Georgia, among others we probably missed.

Corpse Bride is thoroughly Tim Burton. And while it may not become a classic like The Nightmare Before Christmas, it is still an enjoyable film and contains some really great moments. Interestingly the Corpse Bride herself probably has the most depth of any of the characters.

Next up to see is Wallace and Gromit, which was number one at the box office this weekend. I bet the execs in Hollywood are wondering how there could be two back-to-back stop-motion successes when everyone else “knows” computer animation is the future. (Yawn.) In related news, the Aardman Animations studio appears to have burned down! Tragic. Not sure what the extent of damage really was yet, but it doesn’t sound good. Update: BBC has the story now.

Perfection

I don’t consider myself a perfectionist. In fact, I can often be downright lazy. I write sloppy code sometimes. I am hasty with my artwork instead of thorough. I am always impatient to see the end result, regardless of what I am doing. (Oh, and my office is usually a mess.)

But when it comes to things that really matter, I have pretty high standards. When focused I can solve problems well and my attention to detail usually pays off. I am self-critical, which means I can improve.

I attended a Tufte talk earlier this year, and one thing that struck me was how dedicated he is to perfection. He phrases it in a different way, though, less assuming. “Do no harm.”

When creating something — art, code, prose — there is an immediate personal attachment to that thing. Not only is it difficult to see mistakes in it, it seems almost impossible to throw it out and start again. But you have to. The trick is to see the investment in time not as wasted, but as a necessary first step in getting to the final place.

Write half the novel and then rip it apart, let go of the parts that you know aren’t working and try again. Refactor, redesign, redraw.

One of the revolutions at Disney in the 30s and 40s wasn’t just incredible talent, it was things like paying the extra money to film pencil tests, so that animators could see their work as it would appear on screen and fix mistakes instead of shipping it off blindly to the distributor. No one else was doing that because it didn’t seem to make business sense. That is, until you saw the improved results. (Software usability testing is a lot like that, too.)

In a recent interview with Animated News, Andreas Deja talks about Walt and his high standards:

“It’s good to inspired by Walt and what he did, and his standards. He just had these high standards, he would just give the audience something that they didn’t expect, that was beyond what they thought they would get, always aiming higher. And that’s one of his traits, that’s something to really shoot for, to go the extra mile, do even better than people would expect of you. I think it goes along with being a good artist, you’re never satisfied. It’s never good enough. That’s just the way it is. I think with that attitude you learn.”

And with that, I’m off to create something instead of sleeping.

Howl’s Moving Castle

I saw Howl’s Moving Castle last night. When we showed up at the theater, I was surprised that they accidentally had the subtitled version, not the dub. It was great to see the original Japanese, and I look forward to comparing it to the English on subsequent viewings or when it hits DVD. The subtitles were very good — not the broken English you’d expect from a cheap dub, so I expect the dialog is from the translation handled by Disney.

I should describe my first Hayao Miyazaki experience. I consider myself fairly knowledgeable about the history of animation, of a range of genres, styles, and studios, but my first exposure to Miyazaki actually came late, with the Disney dub of Kiki’s Delivery Service. I knew there was something special about this film before I saw it, but finding a copy proved difficult due to lackluster marketing and poor distribution. I went to a few video stores in search of a rental before I finally found a VHS copy for sale and bought it.

Now, many of Miyazaki’s earlier films are definitely geared more toward children, and this is especially true with Kiki. But I was completely blown away by the innocence and total sincerity in this film, and at the climax I was near tears. It is a masterpiece that I’ve enjoyed watching over and over again now that I have my own children. Every second of film is there for a reason, with perfect pacing, dialogue, and emotion. From then I’ve enjoyed his other films over the years, including a side trip while passing through Houston to see Princess Mononoke in the theater, since it was in very limited release, and of course Spirited Away, last year’s Porco Rosso premiere in Austin, Totoro, and most of the rest.

So Howl’s Moving Castle. I’m not sure it was my favorite of his films, but it was very enjoyable, full of both originality and familiar Miyazaki themes. When it wants to be, the animation is beautiful, and the visuals stunning throughout. The acting of the lead character Sophie as a young and old woman is very believable, the movement and walk obviously well studied. Good work all around.

Watching a film like this, with at times such power and intensity, you’d never believe that 2d animation has been written off by most decision-makers in this country. It’s simply impossible to make a film like this in 3d, either now or 5 years from now, which means that the kinds of stories that can be told in U.S. feature animation are limited right now. As long as audiences are being entertained, few people will complain about this unnoticed drought, but the risk is that over time animation will be even more pigeon-holed than it already is.

Madagascar

Madagascar is easily the best of Dreamworks’ (or PDI’s) recent animated films. The animation is filled with great character poses, holds, and snappy movement, and the designs and composition are fresh in a way that makes Shrek look only mediocre. And really, those penguins are hilarious.

While Madagascar was thoroughly entertaining, Dreamworks’ first film, Prince of Egypt, still holds a special place for me. It was risky and dramatic in a way that few films were before or since. We are now clearly in the era of Pixar-inspired buddy comedies. Maybe audiences won’t grow tired of that formula, as they did 10 years ago when every studio was attempting to mimic Disney’s musicals, but I’m still hopeful that a traditional studio will seize the opportunity to reinvent the artform, again.

Experience before animating

Kelly is studying in Paris. She writes about animating from your experiences after talking with Pixar animator Bolhem Bouchiba:

“But it made me realize something about good animation. It dosen’t come from studying other films. Or live action. Or acting. It comes, first and formost, from living life. From being hurt, being ecstatic, being bored, being in love, suffering, moments joyful and rich, things you can’t describe. It comes from experiencing them, and shoving them onto the paper. I don’t think you can animate something truthful if you’ve never felt it yourself.”

Meanwhile, in the first Animation Podcast interview, Andreas Deja talks us through his early childhood in Germany, from the first time he experienced Disney animation up to the beginning of his career at the mouse studio. This is a must-have podcast feed for animation fans.

My own podcast episode should be done in another week. It also touches on animation, with excerpts from a few films and my own audio recordings during a trip last month.

The Animation Show 2005

The Animation Show’s 2nd year show came to Austin last weekend, and I was lucky enough to see it Sunday evening with Don Hertzfeldt taking questions afterwards. He discussed traditional animation, the dying art of shooting on actual film, and the four-year process of making his latest film, The Meaning of Life.

One of the things that struck me about this year is the running time of some of these shorts. 10 minutes is fine if it’s brilliant work, as many of these are, but I was surprised that a couple films didn’t hold my interest. Overall it was a great show, though. Some of the highlights for me were Guard Dog (Bill Plympton), When The Day Breaks (rotoscoping as style instead of cheat), Hello (only animation can do this), and Pan With Us (stunning innovation in stop-motion).

The Man With No Shadow was also a favorite. Don Hertzfeldt likes to talk about how real innovation in animation usually happens in short films, so it was appropriate that this film took an element that is usually the first thing to be removed from low-budget television or feature animation — shadows — and built a whole film around it.

Don’s latest itself was good, but probably not equal to Billy’s Balloon or Rejected. From his weblog:

“there’s a lot going on in there, tho on one level i think the film is sort of like a painting and what you take is going to be very personal and very different than the guy next to you.”

In 2003 I posted my review of the first show.

Where are the 2d animators

It’s always interesting to see where 2d artists have gone after the decline of traditional, hand-drawn animation for feature films. That might seem an odd thing to say considering that recently a hand-drawn Pooh movie opened in theaters, but also keep in mind that it was animated in Disney’s Japanese studio, which has since closed.

The documentary Dream on Silly Dreamer follows this and similar tales as they unfolded in California and Florida. It will be making the festival rounds, and hopefully will show up in a city near you soon.

Masa Oshiro, who worked on July Films’ My Little World, is probably typical of many animators who have left the industry for a while, or for good. I found this snippet from his bio particularly revealing, a strange unintended mix of humor, hope, and sadness: “As the industry shifted from traditional to 3d animation, Masa left to pursue designing and sculpting small collectables.” (Those are cute turtles, though.)

And then there’s Andreas Deja, perhaps the last of the master animators at Disney who refuses to give up his pencil. He’s working on the direct-to-video Bambi II, trying to infuse as much quality into it so as not to shame the creators. Surprisingly, early stills from the film don’t look half bad, even if the mere concept should be cause for concern. Keep up the good fight, Andreas.

Don Hertzfeldt is in a category all by himself. His latest Animation Show festival hits Austin this weekend and will be a must-see.