Animation &Books &Commentary 25 Nov 2009 09:07 am

Conflicts

- Today’s the day that The Princess and the Frog opens in two million theaters. It’s being called 2D animation’s last best chance of survival. Of course, that’s ridiculous; I don’t accept it for a minute. Just as I didn’t accept it when Eisner at Disney or Katzenberg at Dreamworks proclaimed 2D animation dead, several years ago.

But I’m conflicted.

Certainly, I want it to do well – extremely well; I’d like it to make the road easier for the next non-Winnie-the-Pooh feature at Disney. But I don’t think that this is going to be the best of the recent features – cgi, stop-motion OR hand drawn. I’m sure there’ll be a couple of tour de force animation sequences. Yet, there’s not much pulling me to any of those 2 million theaters.** I just don’t have the highest of expectations. Looking at the “Art” in the book, The Art of The Princess and the Frog didn’t warm me toward the film, either. There aren’t many pictures in the book that remotely represent “Art” to me.

Yet, I am looking forward to seeing it. Because it IS 2D animation drawn by some of the most acclaimed animators in the industry. I am anxious for them and want it to supersede my trepidations and be a positive for animation. The truth is that I don’t know what I’m going to see, and I want it to be better than the trailers and books promoting this film.

When I saw all the advance bits and pieces of The Fantastic Mr. Fox, I hated what I saw. I could imagine only negatives. The more I saw, however, the more I was being won over by the voice cast. When I saw the film, I loved it. I mean, I LOVED it. I’m looking forward to seeing it again . . . and again. Wes Anderson pulled together a brilliant film full of charm and wit and intelligence. It not only was one of my favorite animated films of the year, it was one of my favorite films . . . period.

Perhaps, that’s what’s in store for me with The Princess and the Frog. Perhaps the animators will overwhelm me, the directors will have a new vision, the artists will get to me. Perhaps, I’ll see everything I hope for. But I’ll have to wait.

I was set to see a screening on Dec 1st. But I can’t. There’s another more important event that evening. (Anytime live people are involved it wins hands-down over a filmed event.)

There’s the celebration at the Paley center of Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, complete with a panel consisting of Darrell Van Citters, Animator and Author of Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol: The Making of the First Animated Christmas Special, Judy Levitow, Daughter of Magoo Director Abe Levitow and Marie Matthews, Voice of “Young Scrooge”. I’ll be at the Paley Center.

I’ve arranged to see The Princess and the Frog on Dec. 5th. That’s Walt’s birthday, so it seemed appropriate. It’s two weeks after the opening, but I’ll manage. Or if not, I’ll do like everyone else and pay to see the film. The problem is that I’ve been seeing about five films a week (it’s Academy screening time), and sticking another one in there is difficult. We’ll see. Consequently, if I do give honest comments on this film (not that anyone is waiting) it’ll have to hold until then.

** Jerry Beck in the comment section wrote: that the film opens in “one or two theatres today in NY and LA. It opens in “two million theatres” on December 11th.” My mistake.

Regardless, the film got reviewed today. The race issue presented problems for some:

    Manohla Dargis’ NYTimes: Not quite glowing, she says the “. . . finale, like the story itself, represents progress of a kind, I suppose, even if this princess spends an uncommonly long time splashing around as a frog. A frog whose green hue suggests that, if nothing else, Disney finally recognizes that every little girl, no matter her color, represents a new marketing opportunity.”
    The NYDaily News: (3 stars)”The good news is that “P&F” quickly cruises past the fact that Tiana is Disney’s first African-American heroine. Unfortunately, the story that surrounds her often finds itself stuck in the swamp.”
    The NYPost :( 3 stars) A generally positive review but says that the film isn’t up to “Alladin”, “The Little Mermaid” or Pixar.
    The Village Voice: A not enthusiastic review: “Much ballyhooed as Disney’s return to its tradition of 2-D “cel” animation after a five-year hiatus, The Princess and the Frog is pleasantly, if unmemorably, drawn. But the movie as a whole never approaches the wit, cleverness, and storytelling brio of the studio’s early-1990s animation renaissance . . .”

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- Today’s also the day that The Fantastic Mr. Fox opens wide. Prior to this it played only four theaters in the US: two in NY and two in LA. It did exceptionally well at those four theaters; let’s hope it continues at a couple of thousand.

Go see it. That’s all I can say. This is a great film. Go see it.

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- Let’s back up a bit and talk about that book – The Art of The Princess and the Frog. This is only one of about 16 books Disney’s releasing on the film. I’ve read that they’ve been very successful with any merchandise featuring Princess Tiana. Everything from the Little Golden Book to a cookbook. The one that intrigues me most is the Learn to Draw The Princess and the Frog. (In the past, they would have called it “How to draw . . .”)

But back to the one Chronicle sent me hoping for a review. I’ve been a fan of Chronicle’s animation books. Amid Amidi‘s exceptionally well designed book, Cartoon Modern, was the first book of theirs that grabbed my attention. It did what other Art/Animation books should have imitated. Amid’s follow-up, The Art of Pixar Short Films was equally attractive, though I didn’t have much interest in the subject.

The book, The Art of the Princess and the Frog is also well designed, graphically, but the material is, for me, less than thrilling. I’m not sure I am in tune with writer, Jeff Kurtti‘s approach to structuring the book.

The book, itself, seems less about animation than about how to display the artwork offered. It breaks chapters into characters or settings and gives lots of models, storyboards and Bg examples. It makes for a very different format in the book and makes for a new way of organizing the material.


There are plenty of storyboard selections to view.
This sequence by Jeremy Spears.
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There are a lot of quotes from many of the principal artists and animators involved, and the book plays out from those quotes. There are a lot of characters analyzed in the book, so I’m curious to see how they play in the film and how much screen time any of them get.

The end result, for me, is that there doesn’t seem to be a strong focus in the book. I’m not sure what I should be looking for. Is it just a big scrapbook of artwork promoting the film? Or is there a larger focus that I missed? But then I get the feeling that the film is a mish-mash of styles, itself. The book doesn’t help in this regard, but, of course, it’s a gathering of a lot of preliminary art, so it’s hard to tell.

Given the large number of art books on the subject of various animated films, I suppose there have to be other models for the “Artwork of . . .” series, but I’m not sure this is it.

There are some interesting bits about the film that were stated. For example, the chapter on Background design illustrates how the artists looked closely at Lady and the Tramp for “inspiration”. Here’s a breakdown in two illustrations that the book uses to discuss this inspiration.


“. . . We looked at Lady and the Tramp not so much for the “application
of paint,” but definitely the caricature of shapes, and the compositional
elements. Large foreground elements utilizing the screen shape, and then
space of depth, and pattern, and a nice balance and rhythm of light shapes.”

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I wonder what Disney film the Art Directors of Lady and the Tramp
studied when they were preparing to design their film?
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The Lady and the Tramp Bg as it appears in
Bob Thomas’ The Art of Animation.
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Bg for The Princess and the Frog by James Aaron Finch.
.

Should this be an inspiration for me or for future animation artists? The Thomas book was a model for me; for years I studied, memorized and pored over every picture of that book. I wonder how I would react to this if I were young and looking for something to keep me enthralled with the medium.

We need to redefine the art of “The Art of . . .” books. They have to be more than a promotional device> Throw enough pretty pictures at the audience and you’ll make enough sales to cover cost and bring people to the theaters. Some creativity might be required.

Like all scrapbooks, there are some illustrations that were interesting to me.
Here are a few of them.

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Two illustrations by James Aaron Finch. .”

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Something lost. Something gained?.”

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Bill Schwab on the left | Rik Maki on the right

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Eric Goldberg on the left | Bill Schwab on the right

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Bg by Doug Reggers. There are a lot of steamships in the book.

15 Responses to “Conflicts”

  1. on 25 Nov 2009 at 11:54 am 1.richard o'connor said …

    I have generally found the art in the “Art of…” books far prettier than the work that makes it onto the screen of a Disney film.

    This is true even for their better designed features.

    The last few Disney books (and the 2D Dreamworks) are hardly worth a single leaf through.

  2. on 25 Nov 2009 at 12:13 pm 2.Michael said …

    I have to agree with you on the recent “Art of . . . ” books. I don’t think the writers have a single purpose in mind when they take on the task of writing these things. It comes off only as a means of self-promtion (which is what it really is.)
    Instead these things can be used to encourage young animators to continue and work hard (. . . look what’s being done – you can do this too!)
    Instead, like this book they’re just a splash of artwork catalogued for the reader. There’s no reason to buy them.

  3. on 25 Nov 2009 at 12:57 pm 3.Grant said …

    The biggest problem I had with the film (which I’ve seen) and the book is not once does it ever FEEL like it’s set in New Orleans. Talk about missed opportunities.

  4. on 25 Nov 2009 at 1:25 pm 4.Dave Levy said …

    Eric Goldberg presented a “making of Frog Princess” event at Ottawa and spent the first 1/2 hour showing clips of the Disney films that were referenced for inspiration for design, color, etc. It is as if nothing else exists. Compare that to how German Expressionist films helped inspire sequences in early Disney shorts and features. Staring into the mirror can only get current Disney so far. I don’t fault Goldberg or the other artists working on this film. I’m sure the chance to do “full” animation at the house of mouse is enough. These animators are like thoroughbred horses allowed back on the track. It’s nice to seem them run some laps again.

    But, can the film delightfully surprise the way Mr. Fox did? I fear not. Mr. Fox succeeds in how it created something new in animated film. Frog Princess is a look back, not a look forward.

  5. on 25 Nov 2009 at 1:40 pm 5.David Nethery said …

    Hopefully people will give the film a chance based on it’s own merits and not on “expectations”. (I openly admit I have my own “expectations” and bias about the film based on having worked at Disney for 16 years and a lot of the people who worked on the film are friends and valued colleagues, so I can’t help but go into it with quite a bit of good will built up in advance … )

    Some of the other critics who have reviewed it don’t seem as cynical as the NY critics you referenced . For example:

    Salon.com liked it:

    http://www.salon.com/entertainment/movies/review/2009/11/24/princess_and_the_frog

    and Richard Corliss in TIME magazine liked it :

    http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1942819_1942818,00.html

    “Musker and Clements have bucked the odds and made a cartoon feature that is true to vintage Disney traditions (like wishing upon a star) yet moves with a contemporary verve and bounce. In an amazing year for animation, The Princess and the Frog is up at the top. “
    -Richard Corliss.

    I think all of us who want to see hand-drawn features make a stronger comeback will benefit from the residual effects of a major box-office success from Disney Animation right about now. (even if the film isn’t y’all’s ideal for what a hand-drawn feature should be)

  6. on 25 Nov 2009 at 2:08 pm 6.Eric Noble said …

    The two illustrations by Mr. Finch don’t seem like New Orleans to me. It looks more like a New England port town.

    I do hope that “Princess and the Frog” does well and I hope it is a good film. I will probably see it, along with “The Fantastic Mr. Fox”.

  7. on 25 Nov 2009 at 2:51 pm 7.Jerry Beck said …

    For the record, THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG opens in one or two theatres today on in NY and LA. It opens in “two million theatres” on December 11th.

  8. on 26 Nov 2009 at 4:06 pm 8.Tramp said …

    Couldn’t agree with you more about most of the “art of” books.
    Their general lack of focus result I think from the fact that they really ARE first & foremost meant to be promotional scrapbooks.

    Some if not most are commissioned by the various studios, who(even if an independent publisher like Chronicle is used) hire a writer to basically do a couple of interviews and/or be steered by a publicity dept. person to write to order. A long, long way from Canemaker’s fantastic, intelligent and comprehensive “Raggedy Ann and Andy”! How did that ever get published-and in both HC and PB besides? Different times.

    Nowadays the layout, choice of artwork and certainly the “focus” is serving an agenda or at least a slant that the studio wants to convey. As an example “Coraline” was a unique film with an amazing array of artists doing fantastic work for it-almost all of whom were totally left out of the “Art Of” book. Why? Politics? I have no idea, but comparing the various blogs of the left-out visdev artists who created much of the look of the film with the book was…sobering.

    Overall while there may be a few volumes-in particular some of the Pixar ones-that make a sincere go of sharing the process and the contributions of the most crucial parts of that process-i.e. story, visdev, quoting the nobodies who actually had ideas for the films, most are press kits. And I think you know how off the mark a lot of those can be.

  9. on 27 Nov 2009 at 5:31 pm 9.Tim Rauch said …

    Recent Disney films, like a lot of big budget animation these days, feel like a big rehash of the last 50 years of animation art. It’s not a big surprise: I often hear artists who work on these films speak primarily about their love for the “Disney tradition”. As others have noted here, the Disney tradition was, once upon a time, to look at a diverse range of sources to create something new and beautiful.

    A return to THAT would be terrific.

  10. on 30 Nov 2009 at 6:13 am 10.gabey said …

    Hi, i’m actually an animation student. Based on what sir Michael said; these recent art books — even if they were published more likely for self-promotion — has somehow still inspired us to work hard in our chosen field. I guess it depends on the tastes of each individual.

    But then again, i haven’t seen the Art Book of Princess and the Frog. I actually worry about the entire outcome of that film because for me, their colors are a bit flat…especially on the backgrounds. It’s not as lush compared how i remember how the 9 Old Men did the older animated films. It’s somewhat…too “DVD-Blue-Ray-Clear” for me. But these are modern times and i really shouldnt complain as well.

    Thanks for these posts. I’m learning a lot from your views on things animated…and i’m really really looking forward to seeing the Fantastic Mr. Fox after learning that it’s not CGI.

  11. on 30 Nov 2009 at 8:58 am 11.Michael said …

    Gabey, Anything that inspires you to keep up with this difficult profession is great. It doesn’t matter what I say.

    It looks like they’ve put a lot of detail in the Princess and the Frog. It just looks dated – to me – not old fashioned.

    Watch Fantastic Mr. Fox as a movie first, as an animated film second. It’s hilarious and charming at the same time. You’ll find a lot of detail there.

  12. on 01 Dec 2009 at 11:16 am 12.gabey said …

    thanks for the tip, sir. :) i’ll make sure to do that once i get to see the Mr. Fox movie.

  13. on 01 Dec 2009 at 12:33 pm 13.Stephen Perry said …

    To use Lady and the Tramp and then go and do a poor copy of the three houses is par for the course. I don’t know whether it’s to do with using digital paint programs that things have got bad, but a quick look at the three houses BG from The Art of Animation book and the house stick out and we know what we’re suppose to be looking at. Compare it to the Frog BG of the three house underneath and you don’t know what your suppose to be looking at.
    Everything has the same intensity, the same with the interior of the river boat. It just looks a mess and when all those old guys at Disney left and died they took the secret with them. Those layouts look like a drawing for a Disneyland Attraction- wheres the character in the buildings that Ken Anderson would get in his drawings that carried through too final BG’s?

  14. on 06 Dec 2009 at 9:29 am 14.Michael said …

    I’m sorry if I didn’t get the structure of the book. Perhaps it is my fault. I never questioned your love and admiration of animation or 2D animation, nor did I mean to make that comment. I apologize if it comes across that way.

    I also have no question about the commitment or dedication of any of the animation staff. They are all undoubtedly talented artists who show off their talents well. I just felt, as I thought I’d stated in my piece, that inspiration should come from the world, not cartoons. If you want to study art for inspiration, go to an appropriate artist of the period, such as Archibald Motley, rather than past features.

    In the film, Tiana’s dream sequence comes out of Deco Art; it’s a brilliant example of how well this works. Beyond that, I start comparing bits to other Disney films from Lady and the Tramp to The Rescuers. My preference is to see something wholly original. There are bits in the film, but not enough.

  15. on 08 Dec 2009 at 1:05 pm 15.Stephen Perry said …

    Don’t know how uninformed one can be when they take a BG straight from Lady & the Tramp (the three house) and lift it completely. And do a bad job of it in the process; if your going to copy something at least do a good job of it…..

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