Commentary 06 Jul 2008 08:13 am

more or less – 2

- Dana Carvey, on Saturday Night Live, used to have the “grumpy old man” character. “We had to eat worms, and we liked it!” I’m beginning to feel like the grumpy old man, but I’m hoping I’m saying something here, that touches a nerve in someone else.

Yesterday, I was headed in the direction of saying that computer animation in Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings or Indiana Jones 4 was no different to me than the computer animation in Wall-E or, ultimately, Kung Fu Panda. They all move, but, to me, none of them live. The “animus” isn’t there. Artful, well crafted movement is there, but it’s not something that inspires me to go out and draw or get back to my animation box (for the most part, a computer.)

I can remember when just looking at the picture to the right of Eyvind Earle holding up a Sleeping Beauty cel (in Bob Thomas’ book, The Art of Animation) would thrill me to the bone so that I had to start drawing or get myself to the board.

After the release of Beauty and the Beast, John Canemaker and I had a conversation. He pointed out that once he or I would have been taken by a screening of Fantasia or Dumbo and been inspired to animate, and a youngster, today, seeing B and the B would have that same rush. The newer film may not have inspired either of us, but other, younger, future animators were. This was comforting to me.

But recently, when commenting about Wall-E, I wondered if anyone would be inspired by that film. Were there youngsters out there who felt compelled to animate after seeing the Pixar movie? Perhaps through lack of imagination, I can’t see it. But I can’t see it.

Somehow, though, The Iron Giant seemed like something that could inspire people. I also thought The Triplettes of Belleville and Persepolis were inspirational to future animators. I expect the same was true of Toy Story, The Incredibles, even Ratatouille. Perhaps even Kung Fu Panda.

When Don Bluth ran away from Disney and set up his own company to make The Secret of Nimh, there was a lot of excitement in watching their progress. The film wasn’t all we hoped for, but it was light years better than The Black Cauldron.

When Katzenberg left Disney and set up Dreamworks, there was a charge generated, and it was exciting waiting for Prince of Egypt. The film was pretty good, too, and seemed to auger good things for the future of Dreamworks. The announcement of William Steig’s Shrek was a real charge. The horribly ugly film that was produced was so much the loss for computer animation, and that’s when everything changed. Yeah, the grass moved ok, but it was near impossible looking at the damned thing. A sarcastic, sardonic story led the way for nasty films to come. Attitude became everything, and the graphics were lousy.

Animation seems to be diving deep and hard.

I don’t think it gets more artful than this.

So what’s the answer? We’re in a hole; how do we get out?

It’s all about hope and hard work and not giving up finding that inspiration wherever you can.

A couple of years ago, I was about to throw in the towel. As usual, it was an incessant fight to keep my tiny company afloat. Just paying the rent was sapping my soul from any animation I could pick up. I wasn’t inspired by any of the films I was seeing, and I was beginning to lose hope.

Mike Barrier‘s book, Hollywood Cartoons, arrived just when I needed it, and I soaked it in. The book – especially the writing on Snow White – just charged me like no tomorrow. I finished reading it and started reading it again, immediately. That book saved me, no doubt, and I couldn’t have been more charged. Things turned around for me just by being excited by my medium.

You have to find the book or the film or the charge that’s going to keep you going. Writing this blog helps me, these days. In doing it, I’m always looking into films and frame grabs and endlessly studying animation I love. I can look past films that I think hurt the medium and find something that I love.

So many books such as Hans Bacher‘s Dream Worlds or Amid Amidi‘s Cartoon Modern offers lots of art; you have to find some inspiration. I’m looking forward to Sylvain Chomet‘s next film, The Illusionist. I want to see Clint Eastwood’s new film, The Changeling. Of course, I can always go to a museum in New York to find art that excites me. And live theater sometimes excites me.

In short there are worlds out there, and I find it up to me to get that inspiration moving. I’ll probably focus on more of those books and films and artworks that inspire me, so this rant just ain’t going to end any time soon.


13 Responses to “more or less – 2”

  1. on 06 Jul 2008 at 10:26 am 1.Chelsea Kopacsi said …

    Oh my god! I totaly understand your veiwpoint that animaiton is so totally helplessly in the dumps right now. It can be helped though.. but younger animators and illustrators must lok elsewere these days than the 3d stuff . i wasn’t much for 3d at all. i think traditional is the way to go personaly. people need stories with heart and characters they can indeed care about and lok some what like they could be real living things.i agree than Shrek could have totaly been more than it most of pixars stuf (Except wall-e how could anyone be interested in that?.. it seems so static to me..) is great and at some parts can actually make me cry emotionaly or just from the beauty of the scenery. but then again, same can be said for me and most of Studio Ghibl’s films.

    I’m glad to see that there is in deed still some sort of hope availabe for us out there. Kudos Michael!

  2. on 06 Jul 2008 at 11:51 am 2.Bill Perkins said …

    Couldn’t agree with you more Mike, down to finding inspiration in “Hollywood Cartoons” and “Cartoon Modern”. When I’m asked what my favorite animated film is my answer is “Dumbo”. My favorite anything (painting, graphics, children’s book illustrations), is from the time period of approx. 1930 thru to the early sixties. Recently my source of inspiration has been the older New Yorker Cartoonist’s – Charles Saxon, Whitney Darrow Jr, Charles Addams. Again all had their heyday decades ago. As much as it may sound, I don’t live in the past, I certainly pay attention to what is current in animation, art etc but none of it INSPIRES me. The older stuff does and I’ve made a hobby of collecting and informing myself about the stuff as a means to keep my own spirits up and as well to keep going.I would suspect, strongly, that your sentiments are shared by many, particularly those of us of the age that allowed us to meet and work with the masters in our field.. John Hubley for example and so many of the Disney veterans. When I was getting into this business (the 1970′s) the old guard were still around and I had the luck to meet many of them, I, shamelessly, hung onto every word that they uttered. I was asked once why I was so reverential about the seniors in our business, my answer simply was, they did it first, they did it right, and without them we wouldn’t be here. For that reason alone they were deserving of my attention and man what you could pick up from these guys if you listened. I’ve often thought what a pity it is that traditional, hand drawn, animation seems to have been a craft exercised to it’s fullest potential by only one generation, the guys who got into the business in the 1930′s. Certainly there were the folk that came along in the 1950′s and us to be sure but we’ve been, as a recruiter told me “An entire generation cut off at the knees”. The level of skill, of craftsmanship and of dedication required to create hand drawn animation, the beautiful and wonderful art form it is, is sadly lacking in the business now. When I was studying Life Drawing years ago, my instructor routinely mentioned that to be a successful animator required DISCIPLINE, and that was best achieved by a heads down, serious study of human anatomy. If you could draw the human form,, if you had mastered that discipline you were on your way. I have my doubts that the level of commitment exists in schools know. I’m probably sounding like a crusty old so and so…like you I work with the current technologies and keep abreast of whats out there but for me, something is lacking. it’s not “REAL” anymore. On a side note when traditional animation took the hit it did in the early 2000′s , likewise were employees at the big live action studio’s. When the use of Green screen came along not many people thought about the job losses that occurred in the ranks of the electricians, carpenters, set decorators, painters, riggers etc. Job losses aside, which was no small matter, we lost all that craftsmanship, Great movies (live and as well animated) were made by numbers of people, with specific skills, coming together to work as a team. it was a HUMAN experience. While I have know doubt the the folks at Pixar work as a team, and certainly skill and talent is there in abundance, it stands alone or close to alone in it’s acumen for story and taste. “Persepolis” was a breath of fresh air to me. I sat in an audience completely enamored with it who didn’t think of it as a good animated film but a good film period.I enjoyed that. I not sure all this makes sense, I may have lost my way a bit but I agree with you, nothing is what it used to be and for that reason we’re less not more.

  3. on 06 Jul 2008 at 12:08 pm 3.Bob Flynn said …

    I’ve been following this series of posts, and was especially concerned when I read your first critical response to Wall-E. Which, by the way, will likely inspire millions of roboticists. I actually enjoyed the film immensely, but it didn’t scream of animation (I can see your point). As a cartoonist and aspiring hack animator, I haven’t really been inspired by much in contemporary art and design in awhile, aside from a couple animated shows for television and graphic novels. I think a lot of young artists and animators know enough to look to the past for inspiration. Now that CG can pretty much do anything, I think you’re gonna see something similar to what photography did for fine art. We’re seeing signs of it in the success of films like Persepolis. I see us entering an age of story and expression in animation. Maybe not coming out of Hollywood, but as the mainstream media succombs to the selection of distribution via the web, we’ll see a rebirth. Don’t give up yet!

  4. on 06 Jul 2008 at 12:59 pm 4.Schnall said …

    Hey Mike, I’m all for giving up hope; it’s a favorite past-time of mine these days. But I do have to wonder if part of why so little is inspiring right now is because there’s so much out there. When you and I were tykes a new animated feature was a rare event; now animation is everywhere, even in ‘live’ features as you’ve pointed out. Yes, the amount of animation out there that will inspire is slim at best at the moment, but I think inspiration is always slim at best. I doubt it’ll come from a Hollywood feature any more; maybe the next generation has to get inspired by randomly stumbling onto, say, a brilliant short film on YouTube (many of the films that have inspired me can be found buried there…). Meanwhile, the flip side is animation is everywhere. Who would have suspected that twist in the plot of our lives when we went into this crazy field? Then again, who would have suspected we’d switch from staring at bright light all day on a light table to staring at bright light all day on a computer… perhaps animation is destined to lose sight!

  5. on 06 Jul 2008 at 4:28 pm 5.Ken Priebe said …

    Hi Michael-
    I can understand where you’re coming from in many ways. Working at an media arts school for many years, I would often get phone calls from parents saying “My little Johnny wants to be an animator…what software should I buy him?” My response was and always will be the same: “Don’t buy little Johnny any software. Go to Staples and buy him a sketchbook for $8.” It seems with films and even more so with video games, kids are looking at the final product only and think the computer is the way to create it all. They don’t understand that even behind the amazing stuff computers can do, there is a whole pre-production process where they still use traditional skills.

    This trend is partly what inspired me to launch an animation festival at my church earlier this year for kids and families to get some hands-on experience with flipbooks and clay animation, including a program of animated films made in all sorts of techniques. Ever since then I’ve been hearing comments about the kids going home and spending the whole day making flipbooks.

    So you’re right, each of us just has to stay inspired and do our part to inspire others.

  6. on 06 Jul 2008 at 6:29 pm 6.Michael said …

    I’m pleased that all this discussion has arisen, and I certainly agree with much of it. However, I want to point out that I haven’t and won’t give up hope. If I did and were, I wouldn’t be working my tail off trying to finance a studio regardless of how small it is. It’s a hell of a lot of work and worry.
    But I love animation and know nothing else to do with my life. I just wish there were more films I wanted to see – live action OR animated.

  7. on 07 Jul 2008 at 1:25 pm 7.daniel thomas macinnes said …

    The idea of starting your own small-scale animation festival is a really great one. If you could even inspire local artists and devoted fans to create their own shorts, you’d really have something to marvel at. I think that’s the key – you need to take charge and nurture your culture yourself.

    Yeah, most everything that’s churned out for our passive consumption by the powers that be is absolute dreck. It’s always been that way. The true art still finds its way through to shine. You just need to find your way to it.

    For the movies, there are still enough indie films, documentaries, and foreign movies to hold my interest. I’m very thankful that I have a movie chain that focuses on these kind of movies. Otherwise, all I’d have to choose from would be hideously painful blockbusters – nothing more than a money-grubbing scam to foist on the dumb teenagers. Look, explosions! Oooh!

    Eh, no thanks.

    Just this week, I can see the documentary on Hunter S. Thompson, and another on the Yangtse River. Earlier, there was the Errol Morris film on Abu Graib (I’m amazed at the depths of my rage for these war pigs and the 25% dead-enders who enable them). And there have been numerous movies that I unfortunately missed out on. Ah, well…thank goodness for DVD.

    For animation, I’m just grateful that I don’t have children who I’d have to herd like mindless cattle into some corporatist dreck like…well, everything that’s not Pixar, ugh. No, kids, you’re not getting stuck with Hanna Effing Montana. You’re getting Soundgarden and Pearl Jam and Nirvana, Zeppelin and Jimi and Dylan. And you’ll learn to think for yourselves. No throwing their wallets on the stage of some televangelist for my kids.

    Hmm…did I just wander off the reservation here? To my mind, it’s all part of the whole. There’s the greater culture, a collosal mind-warp designed to kill your soul. And then there’s God and Art and Nature. So I think of what we’re doing as part of the underground revolution.

    So when we’re dealing with animation, I’ll keep my hopes high, knowing that the great works are truly great. There’s Ghibli, obviously. We also have Persepolis. We have Triplets of Bellville. We have Paprika. We have Night on the Galactic Railroad and Gauche the Cellist and Horus. And we have Mind Game, Mind Game, Mind Game.

    The gold is there. You just have to dig around for it and get your hands dirty. But that’s part of the fun.

  8. on 07 Jul 2008 at 7:14 pm 8.Mike Rauch said …

    John Canemaker was right. Beauty and the Beast is THE reason I got into animation as a young kid that liked to draw, but didn’t have a sense of what I would do with it. The emotions it managed to draw out of me made me say, “Wow you can do that with drawings!?”

  9. on 08 Jul 2008 at 11:06 am 9.Param said …

    How do you know that Walle hasn’t inspired today’s youth to be animators? Have they told you so? Have you asked any of them? Animation is diving down? Why? Because the new material isn’t like the old material? Why should it be?

  10. on 08 Jul 2008 at 12:09 pm 10.Michael said …

    Param, if you’ve seen Wall-E, there’s no doubt that this CAN’T inspire anyone the way the older features did. I can inspire in different ways if you want to do special effects animation – sort of in the way an Indian Jones feature can inspire you.
    Perhaps I wanted to feel it were more “illustrated” rather than super-realist.

  11. on 11 Jul 2008 at 3:45 am 11.Kai said …

    Someone on here just said “There’s nothing CG can’t do” or words to that effect… I’m not so sure about that. For one thing, real, non-caricature human beings still look awfully bad to me whenever they appear in CG films. No wonder the more successful CG features deal with fantasy creatures. Human characters were always difficult, but having just marveled at the lovely Sleeping Beauty images you posted, I daresay no CG animation will ever manage to capture the grace of the three fairies moving around the cottage, let alone that of Aurora dancing in the forest. (Now here’s a challenge to CG: computeranimate a sequence like that so it is indistinguishable from the hand-drawn work)
    In my own field (psychology) and in neurology, we are far from grasping the intricacy of neural networks that are active in even the simplest of human movements. Why would we think that even the most powerful computer could begin to match the skill of an artist’s fingers moving a pencil over a piece of paper?

  12. on 11 Jul 2008 at 8:02 am 12.Michael said …

    You’re right. I haven’t seen ANY scenes in cg films that match anything done by those in Disney’s best hand drawn features. But I’m biased; I can’t say that.

  13. on 17 Jul 2008 at 4:59 am 13.mnmears said …

    Inspiration is where you find it. There’s great art coming out of Pixar — and not all of it is CGI.

    The opening of Leslie Iwerks’ documentary had me reliving a good deal of animation history in just a few minutes — and yes, I yearn for classic hand-drawn animation and saw bits of it in “Enchanted.” I expect we’ll see a great deal more in “The Princess and the Frog.”

    The artists and creatives at Pixar aren’t to blame — many of them love 2D animation as much as 3D — and I’d argue there’s a lot of stunningly beautiful artistic merit and creativity in “Finding Nemo,” “Monsters Inc,” “Ratatouille” and other films.

    I’ve also been floored by some what they’ve done at Pixar with 2D animation in credits and shorts. Watch the tremendous mixture of all sorts of animation tools in Jim Capbianco’s short “Your Friend the Rat” and tell me 2D is dead.

    I think 2D animation is a Phoenix being reborn, in part because John Lasseter and many animation artists love pencil, pen and ink even more than their digital tools.

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