Thursday, July 19, 2012

Animation: Story Vs. Drawing

Art, again, by me. With this one, I decided to experiment with a little shading. I don't think it came out too good, but hey, ya gotta learn as an artist, am I right?

In one of my ebooks for the Art Institute, the book on storyboarding, “Prepare To Board! Creating Story And Characters For Animation Features And Shorts”, Nancy Beiman, the book’s author, had this to say in the introduction:

“Some people say that story is the only thing that matters in animated film. I agree. Good animation and good design never saved a bad story. Strong characters can make a weak story tolerable and a good story better, but characters develop within a story context. Each depends upon the other.”

Part of me wants to agree with the whole “story as the only thing that matters in animated film,” and part of me wants to say that is utter bullcrap.

Don’t get me wrong: story is an important part in animation of all kinds. I do love good stories, good characters and good storytelling, but here’s the thing: story is NOT, repeat, NOT the only thing that matters in animated film. Just like good animation and good design never saved a bad story, a good story never saved bad animation and bad design. I refuse to be engaged in a story if they can’t even make the characters OR the backgrounds look appealing in some way! Make the designs as generic as you want, but PLEASE try to put some effort into making it visually pleasing! The world really cannot handle another Delgo!

My personal belief is that both good animation AND good story are essential to the worth of an animated film. Having one without the other is okay, and it can still give some great results, but when they both work, the results are phenomenal.

I’m not one to stick completely with the views of an egotistical, whiny, narrow-minded, has-been animator with rose-tinted nostalgia glasses wielded to his face, but John Kricfalusi’s right: animation and cartoons must be allowed to take advantage of the medium they’re in. Honestly, if John K. ever met this Nancy Beiman lady, there would be a heated argument that would go on for days. 

Hell, I’m sure Bill Plympton would think similarly. I mean, yeah, he does like good storytelling, and he has been trying with each film to get a better, more emotional story, but he’s still heavily rooted in the art of animation itself and as he mentioned in his tutorial book, “Making Toons That Sell Without Selling Out”:

“I’ve been accused of making strange films with weak stories […] There may be some truth in their criticisms, but for me, story isn’t the end-all and be-all in the success of a film.

“How many times have you heard the expression ‘all great films start with a great story’? Talk about clich├ęs! Well, I’m sick and tired of hearing that bull. Sure, there are wonderful films that are great because of the story, but please, give me a break! (P)eople describe great film as ‘cinematic.’ What does it mean? It means it’s a visual experience, something that has nothing to do with words.”

He then goes on to cite several examples to cite his reasoning, and he ended it with this little tidbit:

“If I hear someone use the expression ‘story is everything’ one more time, I’ll stick his or her tongue in my electric pencil sharpener—now that’s cinematic!”

Watch out, Nancy! Bill’s out to subject you to a cruel and unusual (but still really dang funny) punishment!

Dated LOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOONG before it was conceived
The s*** that nightmares are made of
Can anyone tell me what appeal could be found in such lifeless looking garbage?

My brother’s belief is that the Golden Rule of Animation is this: “If it can be easily done in live-action, then there’s no point in animating it.” I agree with that, because animation is capable of so much more than live-action, and yet people over the years have wasted it on rather mundane things. For instance, teen shows that are animated but don’t bother taking advantage of the medium. Klasky-Csupo is guilty of this with As Told By Ginger and Rugrats: All Grown Up, and also with the overly EXTREME kid’s cartoon, Rocket Power. And Hanna-Barbera has made a career on cartoons with mediocre animation that often didn’t take advantage of the medium and what it was capable of.

Like I said, I love good, engaging stories and characters, but I love good animation and design as well. Animation is capable of so much more than people give it credit for. I think both story and animation have a mutual relationship, and they can work off each other really well when handled correctly. This is one thing that I want for future aspiring animators such as myself to understand about story and animation: neither one should be more important than the other. I think when Nancy Beiman states that “each depends upon the other,” I feel this shouldn’t apply to JUST the story and the characters, but the animation and the design as well. Honestly though, why make or work on an animated film if you don’t intend to make animation and design a big priority anyways? 

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The World's Greatest Animation, Part Two

Welcome back to the second part of my review series of the DVD, "The World's Greatest Animation," the DVD chronicling most of the Oscar Winners/Nominees from 1978-1990.

Your Face (1987) Oscar Nominee
Bill Plympton

(I can't find a Youtube link, so this will have to do.)

Anyone who knows about my taste in animation knows that I absolutely adore the work of Bill Plympton. The guy is a creative genius, considering how he usually comes up with the ideas and draws all of the animation frames himself, and I love his deranged sense of humor, his imaginative concepts, and of course, his funny, inventively bizarre animation. And this was the short where he made a name for himself. The premise is pretty basic, a guy sings about his lover’s face, and while he does so, his own head shape-shifts, morphs, and distorts. Bill Plympton took this concept and just went wild with it. The visual gags are just hilarious and surreal, especially considering how, no matter what happens to his face, it always returns to the normal shape somehow, and he doesn’t even seem to notice it happening.

Probably the most famous image from this short was the image of the guy with another version of himself coming in horizontally through his head by entering and exiting through the ears. One of the reasons that I love animation is that you can get away with showing surreal visuals like this in a way that’s acceptable and much more believable than you can if you tried to do it in live-action, with all the CGI and that stuff.

Funny bit of trivia, by the way: Longtime Plympton collaborator Maureen McElheron not only wrote the song, but she actually SANG it as well. That’s right, that man’s voice is actually her voice slowed down. Obviously, Plympton had to make do with what he had since, well, his films are made fairly cheap.

The ending, in which the hill he’s sitting on suddenly grows a mouth and swallows him up, is outlandishly funny, but it’s also bizarre and totally out of nowhere. I guess Bill Plympton was trying to find some way to end it, so, after all that odd imagery, I guess he decided to add something even more odd and unexpected, since the audience is pretty much capable of handling anything at this point, no matter how weird, that could occur as a punchline, and that’s part of what I love about Bill’s work: nothing is too out-of-place, no story or plot element is too contrived, too ludicrous, or too frustratingly inane, it just adds to the surrealism and atmosphere that his work tends to contain, and he makes such oddities humorously crazy and fun to watch to the point that you don’t really feel the need to question them. There’s no real point in doing so. It’s just great animation from a talented mind that really takes advantage of the medium, and this short serves as a basic demonstration of what Bill Plympton is capable of, in terms of animation.

I’ve lost track of how much I’ve watched this short from the past to the present, but I’ve seen it so many times and it just never gets tiring for me. It combines my loves of bizarre humor, great music and fantastic cartoon animation into one short film that I totally recommend to anybody, animation fanatic or otherwise.

RATING: *****/***** (5/5)

A Greek Tragedy (1986) Oscar Winner
Nicole Van Goethem

I’ll have to admit, this is one where I don’t really understand what the point is. The basic premise of the short involves these three caryatids trying to keep a crumbling temple together even after all these centuries. But after several things cause the rest of the temple to shatter, they all go off prancing into the distance. Um, OK, can someone tell me any more about this? Is this supposed to be feminist or something, because it kinda comes off like that, what with them being freed from this mundane task, but I’m not for certain. Anyways, the weakness with this one is that it has its interesting premise, but it doesn’t really go anywhere with it, just a few scenes with them trying to keep the temple up, it eventually breaks and they go off skipping and singing into the distance. Um… fun? Yeah, I’m clueless.

Again, I don’t get what exactly gave it the Oscar for that year, since it’s not really anything special, but it’s still an amusing short, nonetheless. The animation is well-done, the expressions and poses are fun, and it is clever seeing how they try to handle the ultimately-futile task of keeping the temple up even with the distractions and one of them acting differently. The character designs are funny because, unless you were told or you paid close attention, you wouldn’t be able to tell that those were actually women. Aside from the breasts, they don’t look anything like your typical cartoon female, and the only other hint is their vocalizations. Other than that, everything else about them is cartoonishly exaggerated, but I guess I do like that, since it shows that female characters don’t always have to be depicted the same way and the same style, they can look just about as odd as the men in some cases.

For some reason, I do like that closing shot that depicts two of the females in the distance prancing gracefully, while the other one runs past in a comedic manner. It’s very fun to look at, and it shows a nice contrast with the characters. And that little theme at the end? Dude, that will stick in your head pretty easily. I still find myself humming it on occasion, mainly when picturing the above mentioned scene.

I will say that even if I don’t get why this actually won the Oscar, I don’t get why so many people make a big deal that “Luxo Jr.” by Pixar didn’t win the award and this one did. I mean, I love Pixar, and that was a groundbreaking short that still holds up pretty well, animation-wise, but I wouldn’t go hating on the winner just because of that ordeal, especially since Pixar would eventually go on to do bigger and better things.

But yeah, it’s an okay short. Nothing truly Oscar worthy and I don’t really understand the point of it, but it has some nice things going for it. Give it a watch if you think it looks or sounds good.

RATING: ***/***** (3/5)

Anna & Bella (1985) Oscar Winner
Borge Ring

Netherlands native Borge Ring is considered to be one of the best animators in the world, and this Oscar winning short is definite proof of that. It basically depicts two elderly sisters looking at photos of their youth and reminiscing over them in what would eventually be revealed as taking place in the afterlife, and it serves as a brilliant depiction of what cartoony hand-drawn animation is capable of, both in style and in story. The film manages to cram so much emotion into eight minutes, and this results in a short that’s funny, cute, delightful, heartbreaking, dramatic, and sweet, all at once. Borge was previously nominated for an Oscar with “Oh My Darling,” another short that I really like, so it’s nice to see that the second time was the charm here.

It’s a very down-to-earth, “real life” kind of story about the lives of these sisters that could have easily been done in live-action, and yet it works brilliantly with the cartoon animation, due to how the medium is utilized and how it enhances the story, and that’s one of the reasons why I love it. Borge’s animation seems to make really good use of visual metaphors and clever transitions, most notably in one scene where the girls are standing in a field of flowers and as the flowers grow, Anna’s breasts and hips pop out in a violent jutting motion, before morphing into a young woman with a nice use of squash and stretch animation, then Bella follows with a simple pop. And just to add to the metaphor, men are compared to bees as they fly into the scene.

This one uses cartoon gags and reactions in a unique way, and you can never really tell if it’s meant to be for comedic or dramatic effect, since they often show up at moments that tend to be emotional. For instance, when the guy that Anna is with goes off with Bella and they literally fly to the moon, Anna literally shatters like glass. Later, following a car crash, Anna tries to save her sister by grabbing onto her ghostly form as it tries to leave Bella’s unconscious body. Things like that leave you wondering if you should laugh or be emotionally invested. Doug Walker of Nostalgia Critic fame stated that the sign of a great film was being able to make you feel and combine all sorts of emotions to give you a new and bizarre feeling, and this is a short that is totally driven on the emotions and visuals, so it utilizes them really well here.

Considering that Borge Ring used to be a musician, it’s interesting to note how the music is used, in that it was a specific theme played in different variations throughout the short. A leitmotif, if you will. Once you’ve seen this short a few times, it becomes easier to identify, and you might even find yourself thinking about it or humming it.

Again, this is a really down-to-earth story showing the life of these two sisters, and it’s still very interesting, even with the animation tricks to enhance the story. Sometimes showing the life of an individual, or even two, oftentimes is all you need to create a great movie or short. I honestly have no complaints about this one except that I would have liked to see more, but I guess that’s a good complaint. Anna & Bella is creative, it’s fun to watch, it’s a wonderful, well-told story, and you really feel for these two sisters since their emotions and character are depicted really well. It’s easy to see why Borge won the Oscar for this one, since it’s an all-around brilliant animated short that proves that hand-drawn animation can really be used for more realistic stories when handled properly in a way that takes advantage of the medium and turns it into an experience. Check it out. You won’t regret it.

Sadly, however, on February 1st of this year, the house of Borge Ring and his wife, Joanika, burned to the ground, but they made it out unharmed. There has been a fundraising website started up in order to help them recover, since they have been getting on in the years. I would donate to them myself, but I don’t really have Paypal or anything like that yet. If you want to donate to them, though, you can find it here: Help Borge Ring I feel such a talented animator deserves the help, don’t you?

RATING: *****/***** (5/5)

The Big Snit (1985) Oscar Nominee
Richard Condie

If you wanted a short film that was weird in description but wonderful in execution, I’d probably point to The Big Snit. It ranked at #25 on the 50 Greatest Cartoons, and it’s another one from The National Film Board of Canada, this time, by the outlandishly talented Richard Condie, who helped Cordell Baker create “The Cat Came Back.” This short was enough to get me interested in the rest of his output.

This one tells a rather unusual story, which starts by depicting a man and wife playing Scrabble. The man’s struggling with the game, since his letters are all ‘E’s, so while he’s trying to decide his next move, the wife goes off and vacuums around the house. These two have rather odd habits. Sometimes the woman’s eyes go out of whack, so she has to constantly take them off and shake them a little to fix them, and the man has a tendency to saw at certain points. In fact, the habit of the latter sort of sets up things, since he’s a fan of this show called “Sawing For Teens”, which gets interrupted by a news announcement that nuclear war has broken out that both of them miss, due to the guy falling asleep while watching and the woman, well, vacuuming. That, and because the cat chewed on the cord to the TV, leaving them completely oblivious to the mayhem going on outside. Things get crazier when the wife catches his husband looking at her Scrabble letters, and they get into a big argument that winds up with the wife crying. The man looks at a photo of the two at happier times and, stricken with guilt, proceeds to cheer her up by playing on a little accordion. They reconcile, unaware that their world had come to an end.

It’s hard to define what makes this one work, it just works. The animation is fun, the character design is stylistically strange and simplistic, the two characters themselves are easy to relate to, the dialogue has a natural flow to it, the backgrounds are incredibly detailed, (and it’s worth watching through again to try and catch some of the hidden visual gags,) the humor is bizarre and quirky, the ending is touching, and the story can be looked at on different levels. In the 50 Greatest Cartoons book, John Canemaker said that “the film remains with you long after the laughter because the message is strong” and that it is “about the fragility of life and is recommended for people of all ages who may at one time or another have wasted precious time being in a snit.” And that’s a pretty good way of putting it. Of course, there’s other ways of seeing it and describing it as well, but that pretty much sums up why this is often looked at as one of the greatest animated shorts.

I guess another part of what makes this so great is because of how surprisingly poignant it is for such a goofy looking cartoon. Using a nuclear war as a backdrop for a couple outburst is a pretty dark concept, and yet the approach is so hilarious, so kooky, and so lighthearted. Richard Condie had even stated, “I tried to make it as funny as I could, yet there’s a serious undercurrent I can’t explain.” Well, whatever the case, the fact that he was able to combine weird and wacky with drama and pathos so well is truly a remarkable accomplishment.

As much as Anna and Bella deserved the Oscar win, this one is just as Oscar-worthy as that and some of the other shorts that I really love on this video. And even if it didn’t win the Academy Award for that year, it’s still highly respected and still worthy of being considered a classic cartoon short. I totally recommend it, especially since it’s such a one-of-a-kind film that depicts an off-beat, but still very down-to-earth portrayal of humanity. Never before and never since has a game of Scrabble gone this crazy.

RATING: *****/***** (5/5)

Coming next, a really strange game of charades, an obnoxious idiot badly reciting "New York, New York", another guy with a shape-shifting head, and one of the most annoying, monotonous animated shorts ever created by man.

Friday, June 15, 2012

The World's Greatest Animation DVD Review, Intro and Part One

Encore Records, a record/CD/movie rental store in Austin, was having a closing down sale, and one of the things I managed to get my hands on was an out-of-print DVD known as “The World’s Greatest Animation,” containing independent animated shorts from 1978-1990 that either won the Academy Award or were nominated for it. I love independent animated shorts, since they offer a very fascinating glance at animation outside of such big names like Disney, Warner Bros., Dreamworks, or anything else that has done animation over the years, even more so in the 70s and 80s, because at that period, from what I heard, animation was pretty much at a dead zone.

Most of the major animation studios of the Golden Age were closed down and Disney was struggling since the death of its founder, TVs were polluted with stale, lifeless cartoons from the likes of Hanna-Barbera and Filmation, who were using time-saving tactics to animation that often involved outsourcing to studios in other countries, (not usually a bad thing if they were able to do animation well enough, especially nowadays, but the overseas studios probably deserve at least a little more credit than they’re given,) the idiots responsible for the Action for Children’s Television (ACT) had forced these TV cartoons to include moralistic messages, even though cartoons really weren’t meant primarily for children in the first place, and there wasn’t a real place for an aspiring, innovative cartoonist/animator to go. Well, Ralph Bakshi did manage somehow, but even then, animation was still suffering a dark age around this time. Granted, it did get better by the 80s, with the groundbreaking notion of computer animation and the late 80s helping to start of an animation renaissance, but even then, it still had a lot of those stereotypical “Saturday Morning Cartoons” lingering around on TV at that time that were mainly considered “Half-Hour Toy Commercials” for the kids. Seriously, the music was awesome in the 70s and 80s, so why couldn’t the animation be as well? (I have nothing against these “Half-Hour Toy Commercials,” but a little more effort in the animation and storytelling would be nice for some of them.)

I don’t know what exactly had lead animation in that period to that state originally, but whatever happened, there was a lot that had to be done in order to keep interest in this under-appreciated art form alive. And a lot of independent animators were trying their dead-level best to do so, and it’s nice that there’s video compilations dedicated to displaying the work of such talents like this.

I watched this DVD, and since I’m all for showing that animation isn’t merely kiddie fodder and that it can truly be considered both art and entertainment for all ages when done really well, as well as supporting the cultural diversity of animation from other countries, I felt like stating my opinions and ratings for each short, since some I feel are better than others and others I feel were weak in comparison, in spite of winning the Academy Award. So I’m going to watch through them, some a few more times, and then I’m going to review them, before giving an overall review stating which shorts I feel are the best and which ones make the collection worth hunting down. The format will go like this:

Title (Year) Oscar Winner/Nominee

Video (if available)

Review Body

Star Rating out of 5

It’s possible that these reviews might contain spoilers, depending on whether you consider short animation as having spoilers or not, so I suggest watching the provided shorts before actually reading the reviews. And when I recommend them in the review, that means that I suggest these for anyone to watch as well, even if they don’t read the reviews. It might seem confusing how I’m going about this, but hopefully, you can judge for yourself if you want to watch the short first and then read the review or vice-versa. And it will be divided into parts since these reviews tend to get kinda long. Well, anyways, on with the show!

Creature Comforts (1990) Oscar Winner
Nick Park

Aardman animator and Wallace & Gromit creator Nick Park made this short as part of a series called “Lip Synch”, and interviewed British non-actors in a similarity to the “man on the street” Vox Pop interviews. The basic concept for this short involved interviewing zoo animals about how they feel living there. Nick used ordinary people of a housing development, an old people’s home and a family that lived in a local shop as subjects and asking them about things from a zoo animal’s perspective, and then the clay animation was done to accompany the recordings. The effect it creates is rather stunning. It does get hard to understand what they’re saying at times, probably because of the accents or the age of the interviewees or the actual recordings themselves, but I guess that’s part of what gives the dialogue a sense of authenticity.

Some of the animals interviewed include three polar bears, a gorilla, terrapins, and a mountain lion that complains about the food looking “more like dog food than food proper for wild animals,” as well as the “lack of space” and the “grass with pollen that gives me hay fever every day!” The mountain lion shows up the most in the film, and if what I heard was correct, he was voiced by a Brazilian student living in Bristol at the time, which is why the lion mentions Brazil at one point.

I do love the concept of interviewing zoo animals and learning what they think of their living quarters and their different perspectives of their life. If only that kind of thing would be capable in real life, that would probably lead to a greater understanding between man and animal. And while it’s not laugh-out-loud funny, there are some really amusing background events, including a bird that pulls on the beak of another one while the one being interviewed doesn’t notice. And even the subjects being interviewed look sort of humorous, noticeably this bush baby, whose giant-looking eyes are actually magnified by the glasses he’s wearing and his actual eyes are pretty small.

I heard that a “Creature Comforts” series was made recently built around this premise, but I haven’t seen it yet, so I wouldn’t know if it’s good or not. The original short is definitely really good, though. It takes a couple of watches to fully appreciate it or understand it, heck, I’ve watched it quite a few times and I feel like I haven’t quite understood all of the dialogue yet, but I still like it enough that I recommend it to fans of clay animation, Aardman, or Wallace & Gromit. It’s just a really clever, inventive short.

RATING: ****/***** (4/5)

Balance (1989) Oscar Winner
Christoph and Wolfgang Lauenstein

Wow, was this one just… weird. It’s a good kind of weird, however, especially given the way this short was made. It excels in its simplicity, using one setting, five silent characters and one object to express a surprisingly heavy theme involving human behavior.

The setting is a very unique one. Five skeletal-looking characters wearing long coats are standing on this unstable platform that tilts with every move they make, so they try to prevent themselves from falling into the abyss by relocating themselves and keeping balance every time one of them moves. They all go to the edge, pull out fishing rods, and cast them off into the abyss. One of them pulls up a strange box, which is revealed to play music when a key is turned. Eventually, this causes conflict that leads to all but one of them getting knocked over the edge and the last remaining character standing at the opposite side of the box, unable to go over to the opposite side without the risk of sending him and the box over the edge.

It is definitely a dark short, but what I really like about this one is the feel it has. The atmosphere of the whole thing is heavy and rather haunting. There’s no music aside from the box, just ambient creaking sounds in the background and it just adds to the overall eeriness. The story is basic, but it conveys a lot of different themes related to human nature, like curiosity, jealousy, selfishness, isolation, and so forth, and the setting and the title fit, since it basically depicts these characters trying to keep the platform from tilting too far over, and when this object comes in that arouses their interest, it just throws things out of whack. The ending especially gets pretty dark, what with one of them actually knocking the others off just so he can keep the object to himself, but as a consequence of his actions, finds that he can’t use it once he’s the only one left since they’re at opposite sides and another move would cause both of them to fall.

These characters themselves are completely identical. They have no real individuality, no voices, no personalities, and their faces are completely devoid of emotion. All of their thoughts and feelings are expressed through their actions, and they’re delivered in an effective manner, often leaving the viewer uncertain as to what their next move is. The stop motion animation itself is pretty nice as well, since, as mentioned, the characters express through their actions rather than their faces, and the actual tilting effect of the platform is well conveyed.

Dark? Yes. Creepy? Yes. Interesting and worthy of recommendation? Heck yes! I don’t guarantee that you’ll like it, but I’m sure you’ll find it interesting nonetheless.

RATING: *****/***** (5/5)

Technological Threat (1988) Oscar Nominee
Bill Kroyer

I really love this short, not only because it’s an entertaining cartoon that really takes advantage of the medium and some of the things it’s capable of, but also because it was made as an allegory/commentary on how computer animation served as a threat to traditional animators at a time that predated the big CGI boom in the 2000s. And who better to direct it than Bill Kroyer, who worked on the computer graphics for the original Tron? He and his wife Sue started Kroyer Films in 1986, a studio that would combine traditional animation with computer graphics, and this Tex Avery-esque short demonstrates that brilliantly.

The story involves these cartoon dogs/wolves working at an office, with all but one getting replaced by robots every time one of them falters, and it gets to the point where even the boss that is replacing them is replaced by a robot off-screen. The remaining wolf is nervously trying to avoid lagging behind in his work, but once the boss leaves, he takes out the robots in various cartoon fashions, one by one, until he has difficulty with the last robot. The ruckus the two create winds up causing the boss to bust in and nearly push the button, only for the wolf and robot to push the trapdoor underneath the boss, causing the robo-boss to fall through once he presses the button. The wolf and robot look down the hole before the wolf takes the opportunity and knocks the robot down the hole as well.

Personally, I think more hand-drawn TV animation in the 80s should have been like what is shown in this short: stylized, energetic, fast paced, creative and fun to watch. Tex Avery is one of my favorite animators, Golden Age or otherwise, so it’s easy to see how this is sort of a homage to his work, through the gags, the animation, the design and the tone.

The robots and all the backgrounds in the film were encoded, animated, and rendered as drawings on a computer known as the Silicon Graphics IRIS 3120 workstation, according to the end credits, and as dated as the CGI may be, it combines with the traditional animation brilliantly when incorporating hand drawn design onto the computer graphic framework, and the cartoon characters and objects that were done in the traditional 2D style fit equally well with the three dimensional objects in the background. Heck, it’s hard to tell that the backgrounds are in computer graphics!

The synthesizer music is totally 80s, and I still love it because of that. It helps add to the “computerized” feel of the cartoon, and I find it interesting to set quirky 80s synths, heck, 80s music in general, to wild, cartoony Golden-Age influenced animation. If I were allowed to animate music videos for 80s pop/rock, I’d definitely choose some wild Golden Age Animation influences for the style.

Overall, this is a really funny cartoon with a great point that isn’t shoved in your face, although it’s surprising to think this same guy would go on to direct the animated film with an obvious environmental message, Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest. Needless to say, however, I feel this short should be re-released, even if animation technology has really advanced since then, and I feel it should be recognized as the thought-provoking insight to the modern computerized industry, animation or otherwise, that it is.

RATING: *****/***** (5/5)

The Cat Came Back (1988) Oscar Nominee
Cordell Barker

The National Film Board Of Canada is very prominent when it comes to independently animated short films, as several of them are on this DVD. The first one of those on the video, as well as the first one I had seen of their shorts, is “The Cat Came Back,” ranked #32 on animation historian Jerry Beck’s list of the 50 Greatest Cartoons (I currently own a copy of the book,) and for good reason, as it is a hilarious cartoon that demonstrates how wild things can get when you employ the right amount of creativity. And needless to say, I freakin’ love this one. It’s one of my personal favorites.

Directed by Cordell Barker and produced with fellow award-winning Winnipeg animator Richard Condie (who will show up later on in the list,) and based on the song of the same name, it involves the character of Old Mr. Johnson trying to get rid of an obnoxiously destructive little cat, with each attempt leaving him as the one to suffer for it, as he gets increasingly desperate to remove it from the premises to the point of descending into insanity and the cat keeps on returning to destroy more of the house. The highlight for me is probably the railroad scene where he winds up grabbing the cat and taking off on a rail car, probably to abandon it somewhere or at least find a good place to tie it to the tracks, since he keeps running over various women tied to the tracks while operating the thing along the way. But when a cow tied to the tracks suddenly interrupts him, his reaction is priceless: “WHAT THE FFFFF…?!!?”

The ending is morbid animation hilarity and irony at some of its finest. After one last ditch attempt to get rid of the cat winds up killing Old Mr. Johnson and sending him into the air, his ghost returns to torment and taunt the demonic feline, but then his lifeless body falls back down to the earth and crushes the cat, creating nine little cat ghosts that chase after Mr. Johnson’s ghost as he flies off into the distance. It’s pretty obvious that this cat is a curse for Old Mr. Johnson, and that scene just clenches it.

Everything about this short works incredibly, the animation, the music, the color styling, the timing, the energy, the pacing, the humor, and even the actual style of animation itself adds to the deranged feel of the cartoon. It’s just really fun to watch. This is one that I feel deserves multiple re-watches since it’s so fast paced and zany that sometimes you might not always catch everything at once. That, or because it’s so freakin’ enjoyable that it’s hard not to resist its insanity. It’s totally hysterical, totally outlandish, and totally worth watching. Like the cat in the short, it’s possible that you’ll keep coming back to it.

RATING: *****/***** (5/5)

Coming next, a shape-shifting face, a strange Greek tragedy, two sisters' lives, and a scrabble-playing couple.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Sketchbook Scraps Too: Electric Boogaloo

So yeah, it's April Fool's Day today, and not much is going on with me at the moment, so I figure I could use this time to upload some more stuff from my sketchbooks.

This is a very rough sketch for a blog post that I plan to do in the future, relating to my opinions about the newspaper comics, be they good (Calvin & Hobbes, Pearls Before Swine), bad (The Lockhorns, Blondie), or meh (The Family Circus, Hi & Lois).

Yep, two more sketches involving one of my manga-based concepts, Mikako. The top one involves Mikako running with a look of either determination or anger on her face. (I need to work on manga character side-views of the face.) The bottom involves some basic concepts, like a standing pose, another view of the flower on her head, a concept for the crystal amulet that motivates her on her journey, a back view of the head, and Mikako as a baby. If those of you lacking in artistic knowledge are wondering about those lines above and below her eyes, they're guide lines. Manga artists use them for constructing those distinct eyes and other facial features, but they're also used by other professional artists, like Disney character designers and realism artists. Considering the artistic training I took before college, both on-school and off-school, tidbits of construction info like that can serve beneficial in the long run.

Considering the bad rep clowns tend to get, what with the scaring of children and the depictions in schlocky horror flicks, I came up with a story concept to mock that, combining comedy, drama, and action, and this is a possible character design. It depicts a world where the performance of clowning in circuses and rodeos have been banned due to the frightened children and the negative depictions in media. One former clown, however, cynical over all this, doesn't want to give up the act just yet and wants to use his tricks to benefit society somehow. Through a series of events, he eventually becomes a bounty hunter/secret agent/spy/detective, using modified versions of his old clown toys to combat crime. And yes, he insists on wearing the clown make-up on the job.

This actually spawned from an idea that my friend Jess (a.k.a. Puppyluver) once came up with, that's a play on "flipping the bird", by having a bird show up where the middle finger should be. I decided to add to that idea, by coming up with an incredibly goofy-looking bird that would cover the offending digit so that it would be impossible not to laugh at it, no matter if it's the wordplay or the actual image of the guy flipping somebody off only for this outlandish looking character to suddenly show up.

I don't know who exactly served as the influence of this character's design. Bob Clampett? John Kricfalusi? Ralph Bakshi? (I haven't seen much of Bakshi's work, aside from still shots and the music video for The Rolling Stones' "Harlem Shuffle," which John Kricfalusi worked on.) Ah well, it has a nice retro air to it, I think.

Just a lil' girl standing around, looking precious.

...And here's my deranged rendition of the mythological Japanese monster known as the kappa. Yeah, looks like something that came from the cartoony side of Doug TenNapel's brain, doesn't it? Heck, I'm sure that's who I was thinking off when I drew this.

Speaking of Doug TenNapel, here's Klaymen from The Neverhood game he created. I'm looking forward to Terry Scott Taylor's new "Return To The Neverhood" collaboration he did with Doug TenNapel. Considering that I've been a fan of the guy ever since I heard the enjoyably quriky music for the games by The Neverhood company and got the "Imaginarium" album, I sure hope it'll live up to my expectations and the expectations of fellow fans.

And here's more experimental insanity:

Friday, March 23, 2012

Sketchbook Scraps

Those that know me, either online or in real life, are aware that I am an aspiring cartoonist, animator, and illustrator. However, since the only posts on this blog that I've made thus far were based around the music-lovin' side of me, I figured I should use this time to give my fans (all five of you) a peek at some of my many sketchbooks and the random stuff throughout, be it an experiment in styles, an attempt at drawing certain characters, ideas for projects or images, or just goofin' around. Some are more polished, while others are rough and sometimes incomplete. These aren't every one of the sketches, these were ones that I felt like showing for the moment.

This sketch was my idea for the opening of an animated music video for the obscure Christian band Daniel Amos, who I have really gotten interested into lately. I'm not a big fan of Christian music, but I was introduced to the group through Terry Scott Taylor, the talented songwriter who did the quirky score for some of Doug TenNapel's projects, like The Neverhood games and Nickelodeon's Catscratch. And honestly, this is a really good group, Christian or not, so I recommend listening to them and anything else Terry's done, solo or with Daniel Amos/The Swirling Eddies and Lost Dogs, before judging them. As to the image in question, this was an idea I had for the song off what is considered their greatest album, 1987's Darn Floor-Big Bite, "Earth Household". It's a very beautiful song, heavy on atmosphere and a haunting ambience, and one of my personal favorites from the album. So I was trying to think of how this could be put into music video form, since the song (and the album in general) is about the incomprehensibility and mystery of God and the unknown, and I wanted images that not only fit the theme, but the music as well. If you want to get an idea as to the kind of atmosphere I'm looking for here, listen to the song while looking at this image above:

I can picture that hazy, foggy, barely-visible forest appearing as the music starts up and Terry (pictured in silhouette) walking up out of the mist, strumming the guitar chords and then stopping to play a while, before silhouettes of Tim Chandler (the bassist) and Ed McTaggart (the drummer) appear from the mist as their parts kick in, and while I don't have a clear idea as to what I plan to do with the video concept yet, I have a good idea for the atmosphere: the foggy, cloudy forest, a dark household, and images in a lit neighborhood or apartment complex at night. Might even throw some rain in there as well.

My brother mentioned that he could totally picture me animating this one.

Both of these were attempts at analyzing head construction. Personally, I've trying to stray away from the "Simpsons-esque" style I've used in the past, since I feel it limits expression and the eyes take up too much room and other things that kinda limit it. I had been trying to figure out other styles with which to draw from, as well as attempting to analyze how my own style could work. Note the bottom image with the realistic head and the cartoon head comparison.

Time for some attempts at sketching Disney characters! Here, I tried my hand at Bambi, a very light, sketchy Cheshire Cat, and the Genie with a little note as to where to put his earring. For the Genie, I used an image from Eric Goldberg's (the guy who animated the Genie) book as reference.

This is sort of a commentary on censorship. If what I heard was correct, older cartoons have had smoking censored out. I know smoking is bad, but come on, sometimes it's part of a character and his trademark to have a cigarette or cigar, and to try to edit it out of cartoons, older or otherwise, because they want to protect kids from it, even if it isn't depicted as being a major part of the character, is proof as to how "politically-correct" this country's gotten, and I hate it. Give Jose Carioca back his cigar, Disney!

We all know the term, but I felt it was fun to depict it literally. Before you get any disturbing, innuendo-based images in your head, she landed on the guy and squashed her. Seriously, it's annoying how people could assume such perverted things in EVERYTHING, even when it's not intentional. But then again, given my love for stuff like Rocko's Modern Life...

This was my first attempt at drawing Brianne Drouhard's Billie The Unicorn, a character that she created for a picture book that I now happily own a copy of, and I used the cover for reference. Check out Brianne's artwork on her blog or DA pages:

This was a possible character redesign I did for the character of my manga-esque graphic novel concept, Mikako. Yes, I do have an interest in working with the manga style sometimes, but I still want to handle a diverse range of styles while utilizing my own touches to them. If you're unfamiliar with it, take a gander here:

No, this is NOT ripping off "My Life As A Teenage Robot". She's just a cute little girl who happens to be a cyborg.

This was my attempt at rendering Bucky Katt from the comic strip, "Get Fuzzy", into a design reminiscent of Daggett from "The Angry Beavers". Why? Because I can totally imagine Richard Horvitz, the guy who did the voice of Daggett and Invader Zim, doing the voice of this Siamese a-hole.

Some kids growing up in the 80s watched an obscure anime film known as "Unico In The Island Of Magic," based around the title character created by my personal favorite manga artist, Osamu Tezuka. I managed to watch both of the Unico movies, since they're found on Youtube. This was my re-imagining of the movie's villain, Lord Kuruku, with some Doug TenNapel inspired elements thrown in to make him even weirder than he already was. Earthworm Jim's head kinda influenced this Kuruku's head, and I drew from Klogg, the villain of The Neverhood, for one of his eyes. Yeah, I know, I'm absolutely insane, but hey, I like to toy around with odd ideas.

This was a monster I came up with for a project in Storyboarding, about a monster failing to scare a little girl in her sleep. And before you ask, YES, this was heavily inspired by Maurice Sendak's Where The Wild Things Are. Can I help it? The designs for the creatures are so memorable and iconic that I wanted to use it somehow, but at the same time, I didn't want it to seem like a total copy, so I exaggerated some of the body structure and made him more cartoonish.

And here are a few more extra doodles:

And... that's pretty much it for now. Until next time, see ya!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Michael Bolton: The Rock Star That Was Never Fully Known

Cartoon Artwork, again, by me, and again, it's unpolished. Partially because I traced this from another drawing I did of this scene.
If there's one thing about the music industry that I can't stand, it's when an artist that performs rock music is only known for their ballads. Personally, if there's an artist that interests me enough, I look for more than just their hit singles and I hunt for cool album tracks and deep cuts, and often times, it's usually these kinda musicians who are only known for their ballads and have some really good rockers or upbeat tracks that don't get enough attention that I tend to focus on. There have been several examples especially in the 80s, like REO Speedwagon, Chicago, Bryan Adams, Richard Marx, and quite possibly the ultimate example, Michael Bolton.

Oh, how the mighty hath fallen...

I seriously don't get what it is with Michael Bolton. The guy has an awesomely husky voice that sounds like Sammy Hagar, with a powerful 4-octave vocal range that is perfect for stuff like Van Halen and other hard rock and heavy metal music. And yet, he's mostly known for singing ballads and R&B covers like "When A Man Loves A Woman" and "(Sitting On) The Dock Of The Bay". I mean, sure, I like some of his ballads, but often times, I don't think his voice truly fits with that kind of music. However, I blame the mass audience for encouraging him to do this kinda music. Yes, the popular audience was most likely demanding “more ballads” and so Bolton had to give into their demands. Either that, or because he actually WANTED to do those, I don’t know the whole story. I mean, sure, branching out to R&B covers and ballads is fine, but I really rather not have that be his entire schtick. Seriously, Bolton, WHAT HAPPENED WITH YOU?

What most people familiar to his hits don't realize, though, is that Michael Bolton really could rock, and I personally prefer his much cooler 80s AOR (Album Oriented Rock) material over the kinda schlock he's making nowadays. He started out recording two solo albums in 1975 and 1976 before forming a short-lived obscure heavy metal band in the 70s known as Blackjack.

Not that Blackjack...

That's the one! The band lasted from 1979-1980 and recorded two albums before splitting up. Also, Bolton's name at the time was Michael BOLOTIN, which he would change to the more familiar version in the 1980s.

"Fool's Game"

In 1983, the newly-renamed Michael BOLTON recorded a self-titled album, his third solo album overall, which was his debut on Columbia Records. This was a great AOR album, and it contains one of my personal favorite Michael Bolton songs, "Fool's Game". Another cool song from the album, “Can’t Hold On, Can’t Let Go”, was later covered by Mr. Big lead singer Eric Martin on his self-titled 1985 solo album. And yes, he had a mullet in the 80s and 90s.

"Save Our Love"

"Everybody's Crazy"

"Can't Turn It Off"

1985's "Everybody's Crazy" was also a great album, but sadly overlooked, as it was a critical and commercial failure at the time. However, it's gone on to be considered one of the best AOR/Melodic Rock albums from the 1980s, and the title track was a minor hit that made an appearance in the 1986 Rodney Dangerfield movie, "Back To School". Heck, a poll in Kerrang! Magazine has cited this as the #2 best AOR album of all time; with Journey's Escape being #1. It's out of print in the U.S. but has been reissued and remastered oversees, and I would love to get my hand on a copy of that version. Other awesome tracks include “Save Our Love” and “Can’t Turn It Off”.

"Hot Love"

"Wait On Love"


In 1987, Bolton released "The Hunger", which was his breakthrough album, but also the start of his slow descent into mediocre crap. Its hits were the cover of Otis Redding's "(Sitting On) The Dock Of The Bay" and the ballad "That's What Love Is All About". However, there were also several cool rock tunes that were virtually ignored, like "Hot Love", "Wait On Love", "Gina", and a few others. It earned 2x Multi-Platinum in the U.S.

"You Wouldn't Know Love"

"Soul Provider", released in 1989, was an even bigger success, turning Bolton into a superstar, earning 6x Multi-Platinum in the U.S., reaching #3 on the U.S. charts, and selling over 12,500,000 million copies worldwide. It featured the title track, a cover of Ray Charles' "Georgia On My Mind", "How Am I Supposed To Live Without You", which he co-wrote for Laura Branigan in 1983 and won a 1990 Best Male Pop Vocal Grammy with his version, and one of his few hard-rocking hits, "How Can We Be Lovers?" It also included a cool song called "You Wouldn't Know Love", which was also performed and recorded by Cher that same year.

The Nineties came, and with it continued Bolton’s descent into bland repetitiveness and mediocrity. In 1991, his seventh studio album, “Time, Love & Tenderness”, was released, and it went on to sell 8x Multi-Platinum U.S. and became #1 on the U.S. charts. This had hits like a Grammy-winning cover of Percy Sledge’s “When A Man Loves A Woman”, which has been previously covered by Bette Midler for her movie, “The Rose”, “Missing You Now”, with saxophonist Kenny G, the title track, and my personal favorite from this album, and one of his last few rock hits, “Steel Bars,” which was a songwriting collaboration with, surprising enough, Bob Dylan. You know, one of the most famous and influential singers/songwriters ever? Responsible for such famous songs like “Blowin’ In The Wind”, “The Times They Are A-Changin’”, and “Like A Rolling Stone”? But why would any of you un-appreciators actually care anyways, you with your Justin Bieber, your Slipknot, your Limp Bizkit, your Lady Gaga, your Linkin Park, your- wow, I really sound like an old-timer, don’t I? Ah, the curse of being someone who thinks the vast majority of today’s popular music is garbage.

This album is also notorious for being part of a lawsuit involving the song “Love Is A Wonderful Thing” and The Isley Brothers, who composed a song with the same name that Bolton’s song sounded similar to. The R&B group wound up winning a 5.4 million dollar award in a trial against Bolton. I haven’t heard both versions of the song to compare them yet, but I still hate how today’s society is willing to sue everyone over one measly little thing, which was something that was poked fun at mercilessly by Weird Al Yankovic, in his song “I’ll Sue Ya”. It really says something when the stereotype for lawsuits is that everyone nowadays thinks that copyrights and suing someone will solve all the world’s problems, which is bullcrap beyond compare.

Ok, I went off topic there. AGAIN. It shows what a screwball I am.

Anyways, as the nineties went on with the 4x Multi-Platinum Timeless: The Classics and the 3x Multi-Platinum The One Thing, Bolton’s songs got softer and his image got more and more tainted with wimpiness. However, when he compiled his Greatest Hits compilation from 1985-1995 (sadly not including anything from the “Everybody’s Crazy” album), he did record a few originals, one of which, “I Found Someone”, was a faint hope that he hadn’t forgotten his AOR roots. This song just so happened to be a minor hit that Bolton co-wrote for Laura Branigan in 1985. Two years later, however, Cher did a cover of the song, and it revived her own musical career. So it seemed only reasonable that Michael Bolton did his own take on the song.

However, His last Top 40 single in the US on his own right was the version of “Go The Distance” that he recorded for Disney’s “Hercules”. The album it was featured on, 1997’s “All That Matters,” was the last album that made an impact on the US charts with a gold certification, but it was considered a disappointment compared to his other albums at the time. And from there, his image continued to degrade, as his next album My Secret Passion, an album of Opera arias, marked the end of his hit making period.

Seriously, Michael Bolton? SERIOUSLY?!!?
And to this date, he still hasn’t gotten the message to try something different, (probably because how narrow-minded and resistant to change a lot of the popular audience is,) as he has continued to make pop ballads and R&B covers that didn’t make very much impact compared to his hit making days OR his AOR days. He even went and recorded an album where he covered songs made famous by Frank Sinatra. FRANK. FRICKIN’. SINATRA. Don’t get me wrong, I like some of Frankie’s music, as long as it’s jazzy and has a groove to it, but I think that just demonstrates how creatively bankrupt Ol’ Mikey had gotten at that point.

However, he has made something of an impact lately, since he was a guest star on comedic hip-hop group The Lonely Island’s song, “Jack Sparrow”. His performance consisted of an intentionally off-topic chorus and miscommunication with the group, as he delivers it with incredible gusto that really fits the backbeat of the music. The music video takes the silliness to the next level by having him dressed in costumes of Jack Sparrow from “Pirates Of The Caribbean”, Forrest Gump, Erin Brockovich, and even Tony Montana from “Scarface”. Because nothing says hardcore like a PO-ed crack-head Cuban drug overlord wielding an M16 Rifle equipped with an under-barrel M203 grenade launcher and shouting “SAY HELLO TO MY LITTLE FRIEND!!!”*

*I haven’t actually seen “Scarface” yet, but I have heard about that part, and I really want to see the actual movie at some point in the future.

Even if the entire thing WAS treated as a joke, an incredibly funny joke, I must remind you, it’s a shame that most people out there don’t know of his pre-hit years, before he got popular from getting pigeonholed into a style of music that didn’t really take advantage of his powerful vocals as much as it should. And while I’ve complained about a lot of his later stuff, I personally love his work from 1983-1995 the most, and even some of his current songs I think are okay, but they’re just not as interesting to me compared to the earlier works. Again, I like his hit ballads, but I like his rock stuff much more, and I hope to raise awareness about this underrated part of his career by revealing this info to people outside of the AOR fan community.