Feed Your Geek
...and Another Thing...
Some reader E-Mail, adding a little bit more to some past articles.
Something has happened to my geek - my animation jones. This past year, I saw only one animated feature: Ratatouille. I went because it looked like a good movie, and it was. As for the rest of the heap...I don't know. Some time along the way, I stopped feeling obliged to see animated features simply because they were animated. I've been called a traitor for this. My response has been equally harsh, "Make better movies." My inner geek is no longer satisfied just to see new animation.
Growing up in the 60's and 70's, my exposure to full, character animation was largely Looney Tunes shorts run after school on UHF. I thought they were the greatest; the way they looked, the way they sounded. The Merry Melodies theme was like the national anthem to me. For a period, I wanted to be Mel Blanc, doing voices around the house until my dad yelled, "Shut the hell up, will ya?"
In eighth grade, I found an encyclopedia entry, "How Animated Cartoons are Made" in the school library. There was a photo essay of the Warner Bros. animation studio from the 1940's, with a step-by-step explanation of the process. It was my epiphany at St Mary Magdalen School. My geek was born.
As an incoming freshman in the Cal Arts Character Animation Program, I met two guys who would introduce me to the greatness of the Walt Disney style of character animation: my roommate, Dan Jeup, and classmate Tim Hauser. They talked about Disney animation constantly, like they'd been snorting pixie dust. They spent hours in the school library, studying 16mm prints of Snow White and Bambi on moviolas. (Disney Home Video was still a few years away). Slowwwwly, carefully, they'd run the film, analyzing staging, dissecting animation, and looking for camera mistakes. They could tell you who-did-what on practically every scene. They let me tag along, even though I had nothing of substance to contribute. My geek fed on their knowledge. More animation, more! My body had become host to an insatiable geek beast! MUST EAT NINE OLD MEN!
In the same year, Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life, a.k.a. the Frank and Ollie book, hit the bookstores. They made it so clear, that thing that made character animation magic. It wasn't showy, flowy motion, it wasn't wildly extreme takes, what made character animation magic was character. It's such an obvious answer, like who's buried in Grant's Tomb, but yes, that's it - character. The words "Character Animation" evoked a Pavlovian response inside of me, the way "Yard Sale", or "Happy Hour", or "All you Can Eat" do in others. My geek body-snatched me.
Flip an animation scene for a layman. See the look on their face as they watch the character come alive on the page. It is the exact same look a magician gets from an enthralled audience. It is magic before their eyes. The sole magic trick, the absolute core feature that is unique to the medium of character animation is this: a sequence of drawings, when viewed at a rate of 24 film frames per second, create the illusion that those images are actually a living, thinking, feeling being - a character - with a different personality, different thought process, different emotional state than other characters created by the same process. When these characters interact, a story unfolds. Imagine being the artist who made those images that come to life.
The more I learned, the more my geek's enthusiasm shifted from animation history to my own creative process. Seeing an animated film for the first time became secondary, in satisfaction, to making my own film. Elmer Plummer was my life-drawing teacher at Cal Arts. He often spoke of drawing upon his personal experiences when designing the roustabout sequence in Dumbo. He created from his own life. As did Mary Blair, Fred Moore, Bill Peet, and that entire generation of artists. They used their own experiences, with their own creative interpretations. I wanted to do the same.
What I found in the professional ranks was an unofficial, unholy alliance of executives and artists, mimicking, plagiarizing, and regurgitating the animated films of the past - each with different motives. Executives have to guard the studio's investment, and sleep better knowing their film looks like something they've already seen. Artists love old animated films, and get quite excited when they can pay homage to the animation gods.
It is one thing to be influenced by an artist, another thing to emulate one. If I animate my character by copying, say, a John Sibley scene, the resulting scene is less alive than had I used my own interpretation. I have not acted, but impersonated someone else's acting. The audience gets a second-hand experience. It is the difference between Anthony Hopkins portraying Richard Nixon, or Rich Little portraying him. One is becoming the character; the other is impersonating the character. While both may be entertaining, which one will sustain a feature film?
Since the animation boom of the 1990's, an animation industry culture has developed that permeates mainstream animation in the world today. The artists making the films all know each other, move in the same social circles, know the same films, music, and pop culture trivia. The result has been a cross pollination of ideas, where artists of today plagiarize each others' plagiarization of the past. As a result, the audience now gets a third hand experience. The animated characters are even less genuine, less alive. The characters in one film move and speak and behave like characters in the other films. They express humor, love, anger, and angst all the same way. The indusrty-at-large has become homogenized. Creatively in-bred.
Working animators can be a very cynical lot (not to mention the not-working ones). Their inner geeks have all had the shit kicked out of them in the studio system. There is a creative gauntlet that we must pass through, where a series of "superiors" play whack-a-mole with your work. Try doing something original, and get labeled a troublemaker for your effort. Ironically, the history of film has always celebrated the mavericks. There are grey areas, places where fresh ideas are encouraged, but often these ideas get overruled down the line. Overall, its pretty stale out there.
My inner geek still lives, it just has a different diet now, home made, organic. The occasional film, like Ratatouille, is fine dining. The rest is carnival food.
Re: Back to Neverland, Fla.
Re: Cartoon Brat
BTW, Sarah's drawings are amazing, especially for the age in which they were done. Great attitudes on all the people featured and so beautiful and simple. They're like New Yorker cartoons.
And Sarah's reply:
Holyshnikies! just looked (Dan) up.
Dan Root writes:
Its a shame the Animal Kingdom was so crowded when you were there -- its actually one of my favorites (Yes I really like goats -- and that big tree -- heavy handed metaphor and all -- I'm not really a fan of wildlife "art" in general but that tree always makes me wanna try some large scale concrete sculptures) Animal Kingdom has a lot of small spaces that separate you from the crowd so when the park attendance is at a reasonable level it is almost peaceful (compared to the other parks) and the various "views" that are crafted like a movie shot and filled with little hidden tableaus. But I have also been there when it is crowded and the difference is night and day -- I nearly had a panic attack from claustrophobia and crowd-o- phobia (what's the real word?). They should probably just limit attendance -- but that would piss people off and goes against everything Disney Co. stands for (rapacious commerce?).
Rebecca should have added the part about when she tried to cook a huge cockroach as it ran across her stove, only to have this half-burned, mutant cockroach terrorize her for months afterward.
Aah, the memories...
Thank you so much.
Rusty Mills writes:
It was 1976 and I was hired as an animation trainee for Walt Disney Studios. I didn't know what I was doing. I was scared, confused and anxious. The only thing that kept me going thru the program was the warmth and caring nature of my teacher, Eric Larson.
Every morning he would arrive about 9:30. I was in the room next door to his. The door between our rooms would open quietly and he would step in. For a moment, Eric would just stand there and look around with a gentle smile on his face. He often wore the same bright yellow, v-neck vest over a dress shirt. It accentuated his round belly. His hair was silvery grey, combed back slick and parted on the side. And always, and I mean always, one hand would be in his pocket juggling keys. Then he would say, "Well, let's see what you have." At that point, I would start to sweat. I had to show him what I had animated.
Sitting next to Eric at his animation desk was like stepping back in a time machine. This was the same desk where he drew 'Peg' from Lady and the Tramp. And there I was, showing him the crap that I had just animated. However bad it was, he never let on. He would always look it over and then say, "Let's see if we can smooth this out a bit". I can only imagine what he was really thinking.
As I sat next to Eric, I would always smell 'Shower after Shower' body talc. It smelled so good and he wore it every day. I remember him drawing over my drawings. He would hold his pencil so lightly as he drew. I don't know how he kept it from falling out of his hand. His strokes were gentle but presise. He knew what he was going to draw before he ever made one line. He never had to use an eraser. I asked him how he did this. My drawings looked like dark smudges. Eric said....
"Animate in your head first, then draw it next."
It took me awhile to understand this concept, but with persistance it finally happened. I eventually learned to animate with ease...maybe not like the master, but with less dark smudges. Eric's patience paid off. He always gave me a sense of hope and never crushed my spirit. I will always remember him.