Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Return of Chris P

During my years as a student at SVA, there were two superstar students capturing everyone's imagination. One was a year ahead of me, named Chris Prynoski (pictured above in cartoon form), and the other was Aaron Augenblick, two years behind. Despite not being in any classes together, I got to know Chris P quite well because he was always around, logging long hours in the animation room, and helping and inspiring underclassman like myself.

With his beard, fisherman's hat, shaggy clothes, constant smile, tendency to say "right-on," and an original artistic vision matched only by his killer work ethic, Chris P was a combination of the best aspects of 1960s hippie culture mixed with the DIY early 90s indie film spirit.

My first introduction to his animation was when my second year instructor, Don Duga, screened a tape of the previous years work, where two Chris Prynoski films were represented. Imagine that. He made two films in his second year! And, more amazing still, they were both good!

As good as his second year animations were, nothing topped his wonderful thesis film, Card Table Tales, which was framed around stories told by residents of an old folks home. It seemed the entire senior class worked on Chris P's film. It was as if he was running a mini-production studio from within SVA, where students flocked to him in droves, just wanting to be around his energy, talent, and good vibes.

In my senior year at SVA my career class instructor, Linda Simenksy, took us on a few studio visits. One of our first trips was to a now long-defunct studio (Vangard?), and who do you think was sitting there animating on a project when our class walked in the door? Chris P, of course. There he was, just out of school and still inspiring SVA students––now by his success in the field. A couple of months later we visited MTV Animation, then in its Columbus Circle digs, and who do you think our class passed by as we wandered through the MTV halls? George Clooney. No, that's wrong. It was Chris P once again. He was just beginning his many years residency at what became NYC's largest animation studio of the 1990s.

As many already know, Chris P became a key player at the bustling studio, helming the hallucination sequence of the feature Beavis and Butthead Do America, and more importantly, creating the original and highly regarded series Downtown (pictured above). During much of his run at MTV I was working downstairs in the same building, on Blue's Clues, so Chris P and I would occasionally meet for lunch. It was fun hearing stories about his growing responsiblitiy at the studio. For all the misteps MTV would take, they did something right by having talent around like him.

While I was working on my indie short, Snow Business, I would sneak up to MTV Animation to use their video pencil test to check my scenes, where Chris P would sometimes saunter by and then sit with me the whole time I was shooting. He was still the same guy that he was at SVA, interested in what everyone was doing, and forever encouraging.

After MTV bit the dust, Chris P relocated to L.A. where he directed series for Cartoon Network (Megas XLR), and launched his own successful studio, Titmouse, where he helmed series for Adult Swim (Metalocalypse, among other series and projects). Unless you've been living under a rock, by now you've heard that Titmouse just opened a massive animation studio in downtown Manhattan, where its already starting to tackle a few series orders. The artist-run operation of Titmouse is in sharp contrast to the Gulag-inspired studios others have set up in this town. Given the choice, now that Titmouse is on the block, where do you think people will choose to work?

I got a chance to say hi to Chris P and his studio co-owner, and wife, Shannon Prynoski (also a former classmate from SVA), at a huge party this past Friday, launching their studio and kicking off the production of the second season of Super Jail (pictured above). It seemed as if almost everyone in NY animation came out for this party: indie superstars, students, rival producers, veterans of MTV animation, and proffesional NYC animation talent of all stripes. The evening was kind of like that scene in Bambi when all the animals came out to meet the new Prince of the Forest.

Cartoon analogies aside, there was hope and promise in the air that night. The vibe was a lot like the kind that surrounds Chris P himself. This is no accident. Studios are always a reflection of their owners' personalities.

"Right-on," indeed.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Animated Gems

Murder on the Orient Express

Big Wednesday
Jane Eyre
The Cabinet of Dr. Calagari

Animator, writer, ASIFA-East executive board member, and teacher Rich Gorey and I have been close friends for over ten years. When we meet up for lunch, Rich never fails to ask me what animated films I've recently seen that knocked my socks off. Much to his dismay, I don't always wear socks, nor do I usually have a ready answer for this question. As I've recently posted, these days I'm getting my kicks from a whole host of film. In the last two weeks I've watched the breathtaking German silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Calagari (1920), the under-appreciated surfer epic Big Wednesday (1978), Sidney Lumet's lush Murder on the Orient Express (1974), with a performance by Albert Finney that was simply sublime, and the gothic wonder of Robert Stevenson's Jane Eyre (1943). In light of such stimulating viewing, I can't say that I always have animation as my go-to source for creative inspiration.

But with teaching season starting up again I'm reminded of a whole host of animated gems that I keep returning to in hopes to inspire my students. Of course, the result of which is always that I'm inspired anew. I remember Howard Beckerman telling me that he's played Yellow Submarine so many times that he'll often train his eyes on one corner of the screen, which can reveal new delights in a film you already know inside-out.

I haven't been teaching any where nearly as long as Howard, so I can't say I'm up to corner-viewing yet, but I have very much enjoyed revisiting certain films again and again through in-class screenings. A cornerstone of my film selection is anything by Paul Fierlinger. The artistry, storytelling, and honesty in such Fierlinger films such as Still Life With Animated Dogs and A Room Nearby (pictured below) cannot be topped. There's something so personal about his work. It's as if the animation is unspooling in real time, keeping pace with his feelings and thoughts.

Another short that I always play is the more recent John and Karen by Matthew Walker. I can't think of a short animated film in recent memory that has charmed me more. The animation acting is as subtle as it is hilarious. The little Penguin can cut down the giant Polar Bear with a squint of her eye, and the Polar Bear (in turn) can barely make eye contact with her.

As animation professors we die a little inside every time a student wants to animate a space battle or a dragon fight instead of trying to tackle an intimate character study such as John and Karen. Some of us take a while to realize that everyday life is full of meaty stories and moments that could inspire powerful animations. I'm 36 years old and hopefully I've finally learned that lesson myself.

Finally, there's John R. Dilworth's 2002 short The Mousochist, which I think is among his greatest works. The whole animation takes place in one scene, with only one camera move save for the climatic end. Yet, you're never bored with the simplicity (which even extends to the nearly stark-white backdrop), because the character animation is so engaging. Dilworth is such a talent that he can draw a difficult angle of a character screwing on its nose in back view, and make the action read as clear as if it was staged in a more obvious position facing camera. Along with Dilworth's economy of art is his "needle-drop" approach to music, which perfectly suits the changing moods of his character.
Time spent with such masterful animated shorts helps spotlight what amazing work can be done with so little, proving that effective animation is about a lot more than just fancy drawings. So, Rich Gorey, I suppose I can answer your question after all.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Rauch Bros: First Five StoryCorp films

At a time when each month brings news of another NY animation talent departing for the West Coast (we just waved goodbye to the talented animator/director Dan Forgione, for instance), it's a gift to our community that we have Tim and Mike Rauch (pictured above, drawn by Tim) making intelligent and sensitive films out of their virtual Brooklyn studio.

Recently, when one of their new Storycorp animated films, Danny and Annie, debuted on TV and online (note: you can see all five of their StoryCorp films by clicking here), I was tempted to write about it straight and away, but I'm glad I didn't. By waiting I had the opportunity to look at their five Storycorp films as a whole body of work.

The Rauch brothers are among the most exacting filmmakers working in animation today. They produce beautifully crafted films to an ever increasing set of self-imposed standards. After producing the first two Storycorp films, Germans in the Woods and Q & A, largely as independents, their first official, commissioned Storycorp films followed, putting the brothers on a schedule that required more than one film a year. Big boosters of the NY animation scene, they wanted to work with as much local talent as possible. To that end, they wisely snatched up talented newcomer David Sheahan. But, they were also willing to pull in out-of-town collaborators such as the former Spumco background artists Bill Wray and Jim Smith, both of whose styles are compatible with the types of textured art that the Rauch's featured in Q & A.

Once I had a chance to examine and appreciate the three new films, Danny and Annie, Icing on the Cake, and The Human Voice, I could better understand their artistic ambitions. While the character designs vary from one short to another short, Tim's delicate animation and the brothers' directing style unifies the films, squeezing them neatly into a cohesive series.

A still from Icing on the Cake.

Comparing the three new films to the first two, I noticed that the two original pieces were much more filmic or cinematic with pans and camera moves, and I found that I missed those touches in the later shorts. The new approach has longer scenes, so the viewing experience is more like watching moving layouts. All this is done with confidence and it's a bold choice.

Danny and Annie is the film that has gotten the most attention with its very tender and heartbreaking audio track. While I'm not certain the challenging character design of the piece provides the appropriate accompaniment, it is well drawn and lovingly animated.

A much more literal approach is taken on the most recent soundtracks, a curious direction when the Storycorp soundtracks are already moving and powerful without any visuals. In The Icing on the Cake and Danny and Annie what we see on the screen is generally a literal rendering of what's taking place. There was more abstraction in the visuals and locations created for Germans in the Woods and Q & A. Germans in the Woods depicted a WWII vet's saddest memory of the war in a very dream-like fashion, allowing the audio track to soar to even higher emotional heights as a film. Q & A took the audio of a son interviewing a mother and started out with a literal scene of their time in the recording studio before giving the material room to breathe in a surreal landscape for the rest of the film.

The title card from Danny and Annie.

Still, there's a lot to like in The Icing on the Cake and Danny and Annie. The razzle-dazzle factor is high. They look like expensive productions, regardless of the limited budget. The layouts are Hollywood perfect and each transition of time and place in the stories is seamless. I especially like the condensed time effect used in The Icing on the Cake to simplify the action of characters moving across the spaces. Master filmmaker Konstantin Bronzit used a similar technique in his 1994 short Switchcraft.

The backgrounds in The Icing on the Cake and Danny and Annie are lovely and most of the time the clean spare look works really well. I love the way they depict the office space in The Icing on the Cake, for instance. It works a little less well when it comes to the backgrounds in the Mexican American's family home, where the minimalist treatment, as beautiful as it is, gives their home interiors an unintentional unlived-in effect.

A pair of stills from The Human Voice.

I'm absolutely wild about The Human Voice. I think it vividly captures what I loved about the first two Storycorp films: a visual abstraction that adds so much to the storytelling. The animation of Studs Terkel's rant in this film is simply wonderful (in my opinion, Tim is one of the best character animators since Paul Fierlinger). And while it contains the lightest subject matter of all five films, I found it the most moving.

Kudos to the Rauch Brothers and their collaborators for putting all their blood, sweat, inspiration, and sacrifice into making these wonderful and important animations and setting a new standard of excellence for the next generation behind them.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Four Paintings: One Lesson

Above is a series of four paintings my dad made over one week in 1963. Two years out of Cooper Union, he was working as an art director at a small ad agency. During a rare slow week he used his time to make these paintings with whatever art materials were nearby. Over the years these works have hung in my family home, so I grew up looking at them. Since my career began, they took on new meaning to me––sort of like symbols of the artistic work I could be doing in between my professional obligations. My dad didn't make these paintings to be a fancy painter exhibited in a gallery. These were works created just for self-expression. Instead of taking a three martini lunch, like you see in Mad Men, he stayed at his desk and quietly painted.

Unfortunately the nature of independent animation (as opposed to the act of making an individual painting) can nudge us away from the personal in favor of the commercial because why go through all those hours, days, weeks, months (even years) of work to make an indie animated short if it doesn't have a commercial value? We want our films to be everything at once: magnets to draw paying projects and prestige art pieces to win us respect from our industry peers. Both of these are simply forms of approval. But, I have learned (the hard way) that seeking approval in a personal film, as a reason for making it, is the kiss of death. It won't likely lead to a good film, let alone a great film.

Don't get me wrong, purposefully making an indie animated film to coax new career opportunities is perfectly fine, especially if you are honest with yourself as to your intentions. All my films, even the ones I regret on a creative or artistic level, helped me along in my animation career. And, I'm sure I'll continue to make the occasional film as a commercial sample. My recent film with Xeth Feinberg is such an animation, and I think our short will work great in a network pitch meeting, and maybe even score some success on the children's film festival circuit. But, as much fun as that project was to co-create, it's commercial purpose (to get us a series) was the reason we made it––so it's not exactly close to my heart. In a way, its made-for-the-market intention made its production similar to working on any paying job in the industry––sans the fact that we wrote it.

Ultimately, I'm just suggesting that we understand our motivations for making films because the clarity I have on this today has been very helpful. Early on in my side-career making shorts, I thought that any indie short I made automatically had credibility has a personal film just because I'd made it. How could it be otherwise? But, now when I make a short I better understand why I'm making it. No film, or any work of art for that matter, can be all things at once... so if I know what I'm trying to achieve (or say) it gives me a clarity of purpose and realistic idea of what I'm creating and why.

When I made Good Morning, which is my most successful short to date, all I thought was: I can't wait to show this to my wife, who happened to be busy in another room of our apartment. When she walked over I was ready to surprise her with 8 seconds of finished animation. She and I were the only audience I cared about. I wasn't trying to show off, make a masterpiece, or create a breakthrough film. With my new short (an animated documentary about my family) I'm living in that satisfying world once again, making a film for self-expression, and maybe feeling a bit of what my dad felt when he made those four paintings just to please himself.