Sunday, July 27, 2008

PES and the "Trick Film"

It’s almost embarrassing. How is it that PES, a self-taught filmmaker dabbling in stop motion can teach most traditional animators a thing or two about a thing or two?

Animation history explains the first fantasy films were produced in France by Georges Méliès (1861-1938), and as his special effects techniques improved, Méliès began producing longer fantasy films, and filling his movies with more and more trick film effects. Méliès is a stepping-stone, leading to other things including the art form of special effects and the development of an animation industry. The trick film became a dated novelty, long ago replaced by more sophisticated filmmaking. The only problem is, somebody forgot to tell this to PES.

PES’s latest short, “Western Spaghetti” is featured at the 5th Animation Show, now playing at the IFC center in NYC. As I’m hosting a Q&A with PES following Tuesday night’s 8:20 PM show, the filmmaker has been on my mind. In 2008 we are a hundred years on from the days of Méliès, and it makes it easy to assume that nothing can surprise an audience anymore. Since liquid metal morphed into the terminator and dinosaurs came back to life in Jurassic Park, the novelty of CGI REALITY has worn off. Audiences are now used to seeing anything and everything.

“Western Spaghetti” opens with a close up of a stovetop gas burner. The shot is well composed and beautifully lit. And then a hand enters into the frame turning on the burner, which lights in animated candy corn flames set to a natural gas sound effect. At once its possible to imagine what an audience might have felt watching a Méliès film upon initial release. Forgive an overused phrase, but PES is a master at making the ordinary extraordinary. The premise is simple: the filmmaker cooks spaghetti, substituting familiar ingredients with abstract artifacts of pop culture. Googily eyes become salt, tin foil texture represents oil in a pan, undulating bubble wrap is boiling water, pin cushions are tomatoes, a ball of yarn is a hunk of parmesan cheese, a pack of yellow post it notes is butter, a dollar bill is basil, and etc.

It’s not so much the gimmick of substitution that makes “Western Spaghetti” crackle to life; it's the filmmaker’s slavish devotion to his subject. He stages and lights each composition with the same mastery DP’s used to shoot a close up of a starlet in the golden age of Hollywood. Anyone can create action by shooting an object in a series of frame-by-frame movements, but PES weaves his elements together, putting a new spin on the familiar in a way that we haven’t seen since Warhol worked in soup cans. PES can take a few items from his junk drawer and make a film with a stronger point of view than the average animator toting around Richard Williams’ Animator’s Survival Kit. How can we not be impressed?

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Memo from Dr. No

I have become a master at rejection. With an average of four pitches out in the world at any given time, I hear, “no,” a dozen times a year. While it’s a little disappointing, it’s never discouraging. I would be discouraged if I believed others held the key, blocking my success. I learned long ago that I can’t expect any network or development executive to be more sincere about making my dreams come true than I.

For the last ten years of my pitching experience, development windows of opportunity have opened and closed more times than I can count. No one opportunity was THE opportunity. Almost none of the gatekeepers (development executives) I pitched to ten years ago are still in place at their original networks––many of them have left the business all together. I’ve seen trends and fads change, rise, and fall year-to-year. After a decade, I am the only consistent element in my pitching career.

It’s no shock that development executives say, “no,” more than 99% of the time. Most projects aren’t as good as we artists think they are. Besides, even when we have a good pitch, we show it in crumbs, trying to convince an executive that the three-coarse-meal will be delicious. When they say, “no,” we take our projects somewhere else, and when we collect enough “no’s,” we put those pitches to bed. In this action, we make the executives right. But, what about those projects that won't let us walk away?

My two most current pitches are redeveloped versions of two projects I pitched in 2000 and 2005. The image above are the designs from one of my current repitches with co-creator Dale Clowdis. The time away has allowed me to view these pitches with fresh eyes and lavish them with the attention I wasn’t able (or capable) of giving them the first time around. The revolving door of development executives allows me to bring these pitches back to networks that might have rejected them the first time around. Besides, the only risk I face is a fresh set of, “no’s.”

A fear of hearing, “no,” is an example of bad fear. It's the kind of fear that keeps one from their dreams. Most every vital band, movie, TV show, and book ever created was turned down dozens of times before finding a home. John B. Sebastian, of the Lovin’ Spoonful, said that his band was turned down so many times that with each rejection it taught the band that they were on to something––“Because the record companies couldn’t dig it.”

Collect a “no,” or two and join the club.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Is Imitation really the Greatest Form of Flattery?

It didn’t turn out so well for Dr. Frankenstein and it doesn’t work so well for animation. There was a recent dog pile of praise for Pixar’s new short, Presto, by some commentators on cartoonbrew.
In general, the commentators’ premise is that if something conjures up a Tex Avery-like approach, it must be good, and therefore a good direction for Pixar to explore. I guess their idea is that animation has nothing to say today, so we can only advance by making inferior copies of the styles and techniques of yesterday. I too, noticed that Pixar’s Presto was a love letter to Tex Avery. Yet, this didn’t automatically lead me to believe a Tex Avery influence equals a good film. The film still has to stand on its own two legs (or four paws). The newish Goofy short, How to Hook Up Your Home Theatre, was similarly well received by the animation community. But did we need another Goofy short from the “How to” series which ended in the 1940s? Is the ‘act of imitation’ what we celebrate now-a-days?

There are rare moments where something genuinely new comes along and advances the artform. The above two examples ain’t it. Isn’t it funny that the same people who argue that animation has the potential to be the greatest of all mediums are often the one’s wishing to restrict it to the land of Disney’s 9 Old Men, Chuck Jones, and Tex Avery? As brilliant as these founding fathers of our industry were, they offer us a creative straight jacket if we try to follow in their exact footsteps. Thank goodness Bob Balser and George Dunning didn’t hold that belief when they gave us The Yellow Submarine. And lucky for us, Yuri Norstein didn’t get the memo that he too needed to live in the past. Otherwise, how could he have created Tale of Tales? Note: both pictured below:

Is the golden age of animation great? You betcha! Did it provide a foundation for the art and industry of all that followed? Heck, yeah! But do we do honor to these heroes and their innovation by mirroring them, OR, by continuing to blaze a few trails of our own? The greatness of the golden age of animation lives on, not in Pixar’s Presto or in Disney’s new Goofy short, but in the work of animators like Paul Fierlinger whose work has the power to make us laugh, think, and cry with as much power as the best work by The 9 Old Men, Chuck Jones, and Tex Avery in their prime. Fierlinger does this, not by mimicking the styles of the past, but by honoring his own artistic vision. Today, animation’s past legacy lives on, but not where most people are looking for it.
Note: still from Fierlinger's Drawn From Memory pictured below:

Monday, July 7, 2008

Today, The Fleischer’s Stand Taller Than Ever!

A couple of weeks ago the second Fleischer Popeye collection dropped into stores. I would make the argument that these films are the first fully realized character cartoons of the modern animation era. We can trace the modern character driven cartoon to the first Mickey Mouse sound cartoon, Steam Boat Willie (1928). Yet, today we know Mickey Mouse as a corporate logo more than a compelling character. A few years back, when the Walt Disney company began issuing its shorts on DVD in lovely tin box packaging, a whole new generation of animation artists were able to watch the chronological Mickey, Donald, Pluto, and Goofy shorts. In my opinion, the most interesting DVDs issued focused on Disney’s Silly Symphony cartoons, which retain their joy of innovation all these years later. Some of that joy can be found in the early Mickey shorts as well, but to watch a few Mickey’s back-to-back, the joy soon gives way to repetition-induced fatigue. I find myself wondering why they had bothered to reanimate Mickey or Minnie playing the piano for ten cartoons in a row.

Across the continent, The Fleischer’s were busy launching a major star of their own, Betty Boop. Betty immediately stood out as the only non-animal cartoon star, and unlike Minnie Mouse, this woman had womanly attributes that went far beyond a bow in her hair. The pre-code Betty Boop cartoons are loosely constructed and often surreal. Unlike Mickey Mouse, which had its roots in silent animation (the first two Mickey shorts were silent cartoons), the Fleischer’s Betty Boop was a modern sound cartoon reflecting contemporary American society, depicting immigrants populating bustling cityscapes. Mickey Mouse, in contrast, depicted country life and the nostalgia of a vanishing America. Maybe Disney’s nostalgic approach struck a larger chord with the public, because he was infinitely more successful than the Fleischer’s in the long run. How odd, that from today’s vantage point, we can be nostalgic for the Fleischer’s approach.

The loose approach of Betty Boop films get criticized (or underappreciated) in the light of more structured films that followed (think Chuck Jone’s Coyote and Road Runner series). Betty Boop offered a different approach, one no less valid, and one more close to Jazz music, where animators improvised gags in a sequence, not always knowing where it was all leading to. It could be argued that the Betty Boop shorts were so far ahead of their time that series animation is still trying to catch up. Recent pilots such as Frederator/Nickelodeon’s Adventure Time by Pen Ward, show that looseness can still be applied to today’s cartoons with a winning result. Betty Boop may prove to be far more influential than Bugs Bunny over the long haul.

Shortly after Betty Boop’s success, the Fleischer’s secured the rights to animate E. Segar’s comic strip character Popeye. Its hard for us to appreciate how brilliant the Fleischer Popeye shorts are. For one, since they are based on someone else’s creation, it tends to diminish the credit we might bestow on the Fleischer’s. Yet, everything from how Popeye walked, spoke, and moved had to be figured out for animation. The Fleischer’s not only rose to those challenges, they delivered so much more. I like to screen the Popeye short, “The Paneless Window Washer” (1937) for my animation students. While Mickey Mouse shorts might still charm an audience, Popeye shorts like this one, have the power to astound us. My students watched the short in amazement and awe. The layouts, timing, and characterization are superb. Should we not be extra impressed that such expertly constructed shorts came from the same studio that was making the free-form Betty Boops? Bugs Bunny and other star characters that followed at rival cartoon studios delivered laughs but, don’t always have joy in every frame as the Fleischer Popeyes clearly do. Run, don’t walk, and pick up the new Fleischer Popeye collection today!