Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Heritage Animation Art Auction

Heritage is running an animation art auction and you can see the complete, illustrated catalog here.

The art that is in this catalog is increasingly limited to the nostalgia market.  People growing up now will see this material as old fashioned and they don't have equivalent art to buy from the shows they grew up watching.

There was a time when animation art auctions were common, but since the field has gone digital, whether 2D or 3D, there is no longer any original art to sell.  The art that goes into pre-production is generally now available in the books that seem to accompany every animated release.  However, the animation business has lost a revenue stream and they seem to have lost interest in the high end collectibles market.

I don't follow the collectibles market closely, but is Disney still putting out limited editions and expensive pieces?  With DreamWorks diversifying and looking for revenue wherever it can, I'm surprised that they haven't tried to develop this market.  With cgi and 3D printing, I can see a market for turning out limited edition figurines that are actual poses from films.  The characters from the How to Train Your Dragon films seem a natural for this.

It will be interesting to see if animation art returns to being a small, esoteric piece of the art market or if studios figure out a way to get back into it in a big way.  If it remains a nostalgia item, it will eventually have its customer base die off.

Pete Docter in Toronto

Pete Docter was at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Monday, March 23, starting the publicity rounds for his next film Inside Out.  He was interviewed on stage by film critic Richard Crouse in front of a sold out audience.  Crouse took Docter through his career and asked some very naive questions about animation, but Docter handled himself well.  At the end of the session, the opening to Inside Out was screened.  It is unquestionably a Pixar film in design and tone and it has the strong emotional core of Docter's earlier films.

This was followed by Docter introducing a screening of Up.

On Tuesday, Docter appeared on Q, the CBC radio arts program.  He covered much of the same material as he did with Crouse, and you can listen to the segment here.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Michal Sporn Remembered

Journalist and animation historian Thad Komorowski put together a segment on Michael Sporn for the WBGO Journal on March 6.  It includes short interviews with animators John Canemaker, Ray Kosarin, actress and Michael's widow Heide Stallings and a brief quote from me.

Michael has been gone more than a year now, and I still find myself missing him every time I see a new film or hear a new bit of industry news.  Michael's views were always interesting and hearing them often sharpened my own views.  Had he lived, I'm sure right now I'd be hearing stories about the production of his first feature based on Edgar Allen Poe's life and stories.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

New CRTC Rules

The world of television is changing rapidly and the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission is attempting to catch up.  It set forth new rules today and while the new rules do not mention animation specifically, they will undoubtedly affect animation production.

Where in the past, specialty channels (which include channels like YTV and Teletoon) had individual requirements for the amount of Canadian content they ran, now all specialty channels will have the same requirement to run Canadian content 35% of the time.  I can't find YTV's former requirement, but Teletoon's was 60%.  They can now run considerably less Canadian programming.

While the CRTC has mandated that broadcasters must spend the same dollar amount as before, reducing the requirements for Canadian shows means fewer shows with higher budgets.  This may be a problem for studios that don't own broadcast outlets.  Nelvana and DHX are well positioned, as they will undoubtedly favour themselves with higher budgets rather than have their channels purchasing more expensive shows from other Canadian studios. If Nelvana subcontracts, will their subcontractors see any of the increased budgets or will the the subcontract budgets remain the same with any increase staying with Nelvana?

I'm afraid that these new rules will put the squeeze on smaller studios that rely on broadcasters and cable channels for their sales.  Can Netflix or Amazon take up the slack?  If not, there's a chance that we're going to see less production in the near future. 

The Canadian TV animation industry is presently as large as it has ever been.  At Sheridan, we are being approached by studios that are trying to get a jump on Industry Day and hire students before they graduate.  Those of us who have been around for awhile have wondered how long the industry expansion can continue.  It's possible that these new rules, put in place to improve quality and give broadcasters more flexibility, may not be good for Canadian animation. 

Monday, February 23, 2015

My post-Oscar Thought

I wish the media paid as much attention to the Nobel prizes in science and medicine as it does to the Academy Awards.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Toon Talks Podcast

Friend Jim Caswell pointed me to a podcast featuring animator Charlie Bonifacio.  It's the latest episode of the Toon Talks podcast, hosted by an animation professional named Sandra.  I don't know if she's choosing to keep her last name secret or if it's an oversight.

In any case, besides being an excellent draftsman and animator, Bonifacio is highly articulate.  I've listened to his episode and look forward to hearing the others in this series, which feature people like Mark Henn, Carlos Baena, Tomm Moore and Sergio Pablos.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Twice Upon a Time

On Saturday night at 2:15 A.M. Eastern Time (really early Sunday morning), Turner Classic Movies will run a genuine rarity.  Twice Upon a Time (1983) is an animated feature that uses backlit translucent cut-outs in stop motion produced by George Lucas and directed by John Korty and Charles Swenson.  The film has never been on DVD and rarely runs on television.

The film features voice work by Lorenzo Music and Paul Frees.  There are many names in the crew recognizable from other work, such as David Fincher (who did special effects), Henry Selick, Kaj Pindal, and John Van Vliet.

TCM's blog Movie Morlocks discusses the career of John Korty and the circumstances surrounding the making of the film.   Ward Jenkins collects a bunch of YouTube clips and interviews Harley Jessup, the art director of the film.

The 1980s were an odd decade for animation.  Disney was rebuilding, Don Bluth was attempting to overtake them and Bakshi was in his rotoscope period.  The decade also saw lots of independent animated features that were interesting but failed to have much box office success.  It wasn't until the later '80s, when Disney got back on track and Spielberg got involved with animation that a new normal was established.  Prior to that, films like Twice Upon a Time, Heavy Metal, Grendel Grendel Grendel, The Plague Dogs, Rock and Rule, The Adventures of Mark Twain and When the Wind Blows were looking to take animation in new directions, but due to inexperience and audience prejudices, they failed.

While these films had small, but professional budgets, this kind of film is made today on a shoestring by independents like Bill Plympton, Nina Paley and Signe Baumane.  If those types of films are interesting to you, take a look at Twice Upon a Time.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness

Mami Sunada's documentary on the creation of The Wind Rises, The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, is a fascinating film for a wide variety of reasons.

The main one is Hayao Miyazaki himself, a gruff, prickly personality who has a love/hate relationship with making animated films.  He has devoted his life to something that he has large doubts about.  He says, "Today, all of humanity's dreams are cursed somehow.  Beautiful yet cursed dreams.  I'm not even talking about wanting to be rich or famous.  Screw that.  That's just hopeless.  What I mean is, how do we know movies are even worthwhile?  If you really think about it, is this not just some grand hobby?  Maybe there was a time when you could make films that mattered, but now?  Most of our world is rubbish.  It's difficult."

I would love to know if Miyazaki thought this way when he was younger or if there has been a darkening of his view over time.  There are artists who create to escape from themselves; to imagine a world better than the one they live in.  Miyazaki may be someone who has created pleasant fantasies to counterbalance his tendency to pessimism. The film reveals that Miyazaki's original intention was to have Jiro, the main character of The Wind Rises, die at the end, but he changed his mind.  Miyazaki affirms life, even as he questions its result.

The inside of Studio Ghibli is a lovely workspace, with large windows providing natural light and a rooftop garden that Miyazaki visits often.  It was interesting to compare the technical process to what's common in North America.  No animation disks are used, just floating pegs on tables with built in light boxes.  The Japanese all use the pegs at the top, in contrast to the North American preference for bottom pegs.  The backgrounds are still painted on paper and shot on an animation camera, though the animation drawings are brought into the computer for colouring and compositing with the backgrounds.  I was aware that voices are post-synched to picture, but the voice of Jiro was not even cast until much animation had been done. In North America, characters and animation are built on top of voices.

I knew nothing of producer Toshio Suzuki before seeing this film, but I have nothing but admiration for him now.  He is the producer that every director wants and needs.  He is level-headed and patient.  He is an ambassador for the studio with merchandisers, distributors and the press.  He works very hard, but never seems tired or on edge.  He is the calm in the middle of any storm.  While Miyazaki seems intimidating at times, Suzuki is never less than friendly.  Of the two, I suspect that spending time with Suzuki would be a lot more pleasant.

Unfortunately, the film has very little of Ghibli's other director, Isao Takahata.  We never see any part of his Princess Kaguya in production.  We do, however, meet the young producer in charge of that film, Yoshiaki Nishimura.  Takahata is apparently famous for being unable to stick to a schedule.  Initially, Ghibli intended to release Princess Kaguya simultaneously with The Wind Rises, but Takahata was unable to make the deadline.  Nishimura is the one who had to deal with trying to get the film finished.  In the DVD supplement called Ushiko Investigates! (Ushiko being the studio cat), Nishimura says, "I believe many works in this world are unnecessary.  I think there are a lot of them like that.  At one point, I thought if I had the time to be making anime like that, I'd rather devote my energy somewhere else.  A Takahata-san movie will be a masterpiece for 10 years, 20 years.  I figured it would be a work you'd want to see again and again.  Create 100 things in 10 years or create 1 thing in 10 years."  At Ghibli, while money must play a role in shaping the films, it isn't the only standard that's applied.

The same DVD extra contains a moment so brazen, I am amazed that it was included.  John Lasseter visits the studio and on camera talks about his admiration for Miyazaki's films.  The two of them seem to have a warm, personal relationship as they talk to each other and move through the studio.  When Miyazaki is alone, Sunada asks Miyazaki, "What do you like about Lasseter-san?"  Miyazaki's response is "What do I like about him?  That's not the kind of relationship we have with each other.  I need Lasseter.  He's necessary."  The same man who can create the warmth of Totoro can be cold, calculating and inconsiderate.

If you wish to know more about Studio Ghibli and if you wish to get closer to Miyazaki, this documentary is essential.  It supplements the two volumes of Miyazaki's collected writings.  There are no documentaries about North American animation studios that are like it.  Even The Sweatbox doesn't come close, as everyone at Disney is always conscious of public relations.  No one speaks as bluntly on camera as Miyazaki.  Furthermore, if you have worked in animation, watch Toshio Suzuki show how a brilliant producer operates.

This documentary is a precious record of a great director and a great studio that have earned a lasting place in animation history and in the hearts of animation fans around the world.