Category Archives: Animation Reference

Meeting The Masters, And A Little Background On A Famous Sea Witch

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Today I had the privilege of meeting a couple of master animators.  The first was the great Tony Bancroft, director of Mulan, and supervising animator of Pumbaa, Kronk, among others.  It was a pleasure meeting him, and he has a great book I bought about Directing for Animation.  Tony is currently directing an animated feature with an idea involving Paul McCartney.  It’ll be interesting to see where that goes.  The other was animation master Dale Baer, who has been with Disney since the 1970’s.  One of my favorite Baer characters is Yzma from Emperor’s New Groove.  I tried to see if I could get a drawing of Yzma Kitty from him, but unfortunately he couldn’t remember how to draw her as a cat!  Oh well.  But the Yzma drawing I got was pretty cool.

The biggest pleasure I had though was meeting one of Disney’s great supervising animators, Ruben Aquino.

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Ruben is most well known for supervising the animation of Ursula in The Little Mermaid, and was also responsible for Adult Simba in The Lion King.  It was great to sit down and talk with him about Ursula, who as a child was one of my most feared Disney Villains.  During my talk with him, I said that for myself as a kid, Ursula was probably second to Stromboli in Pinocchio for being the scariest Disney Villain, to which he replied, “Thank you!  That’s quite a compliment for scariest villain!”  During production of The Little Mermaid, Ruben was the third supervising animator asked to tackle the character, which had been in development by two animators, Glen Keane and Rob Minkoff.  One of the inspirations for Ursula was the drag queen Divine, and the animators watched the featured John Waters film for inspiration of the character.  As for making her fat, Jeffrey Katzenberg originally wanted to make her skinny like Joan Collins, but it was the voices of some of the animators and the backing of Howard Ashman that making her fat also made her a bit funnier.  One of the interesting things about the character is that she’s quite inconsistent when it comes to staying on model.  I told Ruben it was one of the things I loved was getting to see which animators worked on Ursula based on the different styles, but Ruben mentioned that the inconsistency was one of the things that bothered him about the character, and his animation was probably the most on model.  But regardless of that he also mentioned it being the most fun character he ever worked on.

Below you can see some of the inconsistencies in the model based on the different animators that worked on her.  Sometimes she’s on model, sometimes her hair or teeth are too big.  Some animators are more broad and over the top, such as Kathy Zelinski, who animated Ursula casting her spells, as well as the great scene where she’s transformed from Vanessa back to herself and crawls towards the camera on the boat deck.  Great creepy stuff.

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Although Ursula was my childhood terror, I couldn’t help but ask for a sketch of her from him, which he obliged in the drawing below.

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It was a great pleasure getting to talk with these guys.  Hopefully I’ll have more of these events coming up soon, and if I ever get the opportunity, I’d love to do an interview and sit down with one of these guys and talk about their careers.  That would be fun.

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Toy Story (1995) Dir. John Lasseter

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I took a great class yesterday from Marshall Vandruff, a terrific artist and teacher. The class was a Visual Storytelling Analysis of the film Toy Story, where we went through the entire film, stopping after each sequence and discussing the story structure and emotional line of the film. It was an absolutely terrific seminar. I wanted to talk a little bit about Toy Story as a film in general, because it really is such a great, well told story.  This is a film where the story was allowed to be what it should have been.  There was a tremendous amount of searching to find the film this would eventually become, but this movie turned out to be the ultimate game changer for animation.  What’s even more astounding is that this film does not feel dated in the slightest.  While the animation and visuals would technically be considered “primitive” to what CG films can do know, Toy Story was still approached with a wonderful artistic eye, and the visuals are still just as wonderful and aesthetically pleasing to the eye as it was when it first premiered.

I was 14 when Toy Story first came out.  From what I do remember about seeing the film, I remember how much I liked it although I didn’t know the impact it would have that one day CG would completely take over the animation field.  I never saw myself wanting to go into a career in CG after this, but I saw it as the use of a different medium.  The story was great, and the film itself was a lot of fun.  There was one particular scene that hit me pretty hard when I first saw it, and still today it’s my favorite scene in the whole film.  It’s basically the fall of Buzz Lightyear when he discovers that he’s not a space ranger, just “an insignificant stupid little toy”.  It’s his fall from grace and his discovery that the world was never what he imagined it would be.  The scene I refer to in this is where Buzz and Woody are talking in the middle of the night at Sid’s house and Woody is trying to get Buzz to help him escape.  Buzz just sits their alone with his sad line, “I can’t help.  I can’t help anybody.”  It’s been a few years since I’ve watched this film, but yesterday as I watched the film I couldn’t help but be moved to tears by this sequence.  Not in a heavy depressed way, but as the scene plays out, the two of them have reached a penultimate moment where they couldn’t get any lower and two guys that were once enemies finally reach common ground.  It’s a beautiful scene.  And when Buzz finally sees the words “Andy” on his shoe and gets the message that there is a new, better life for him out there, you see a character that finds bliss in that moment.

There’s a lot of great visual storytelling devices in this movie.  I’ve always liked the opening sequence with Andy playing with his toys.  The camera is always kept at the Toy’s point of view, even though they are in “play mode”, meaning they don’t move.  When we’re introduced to Woody, who appears to us as just an ordinary toy, the camera keeps everything so that we see what he sees in his head, from going down the stair railing to spinning in the chair with Andy.  One of the interesting things that was pointed out when I was in the class was an idea that started out as a cliche joke and goes on to become an important part of the story.  The scene starts with the army men going to investigate the new birthday presents Andy is getting.  After one of them gets crushed, the wounded soldier shouts out “Go on without me!” to which the Army captain returns and says, “A good soldier never leaves a man behind!”  This theme is echoed through to the final sequence in the film, where twice Woody and Buzz make self sacrifices for each other.  For instance, the first time Buzz is caught in a fence as the moving van is leaving, and he shouts to Woody, “Go on, I’ll catch up”, to which Woody who is right at his moment of victory, decides to jump down and help Buzz.  Then the second time it happens, Woody’s leg is caught in the dogs mouth and he cries out to Buzz, “Take care of Andy for me!”, to which Buzz shouts No! and jumps on the dog, pulling up and snapping its eyelids.

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From a structural standpoint it was interesting to see how so many different elements are set up and paid off later in the movie.  The story structure of this film is a solid as they come.  The sequels were never quite the same when it came to this film, and one of the things I enjoyed about this film was Mr. Potato Head, who is much more of a smart ass, and while he’s not a villain, he is a bit more of an antagonist figure here.  A part of it is that he’s somewhat jealous of Woody’s position as Andy’s favorite toy, and manages to convince the other toys not to let Woody come back to them after what he did to Buzz.  While Potato Head makes some good points, at the same time, you can’t help but feel his motives are a little ulterior even if he’s not conscieous about what he’s doing.  There’s a part of him that already wants Woody to go away anyway, just because Woody decided to be self-proclaimed leader of the toys.  Potato head even gets a bit of comeuppance at the end of the film when the race car flies into him and his body parts scatter all over the place.  And then of course, he gets a happy ending when he finally gets Ms. Potato Head!

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I’ve always had problems with the sequels for this film, because to me the idea of the toys getting replaced because their masters grew up or moved on…for some reason that story was never important to me.  It’s almost like it comes to a shock to all the toys that their master is going to grow up, when I think if every toy before hand had to deal with this, you’d think toys would have some plan or initiative on what to do when they had to move on to another master.  You’d think instead of “holding on” to each other, that one day they would split up and move on to other people, and one day eventually end up in the trash pile.  But that’s just what their existence is.  It seems like they’re not okay with the idea of dying or moving on.  I was more interested in the first Toy Story because it dealt with the toys dealing with ordinary problems that we can relate to as people.  The jealousy of a new toy coming into the picture when Buzz arrives, which angers Woody, is very human and a story we can all relate to when somebody comes into our lives we didn’t ask for and we don’t know how to deal when that person comes in with newer or more impressive ideas than the old toy.  Some of the aspects we talked about in this film were the metaphors about how the space race came in during the 60’s and took over when before every kid was interested in cowboys and Indians and then suddenly everyone was into space and astronauts.  All of this helps to build on a great rivalry with the characters.

Toy Story will always be one of Pixar’s greatest triumphs.  The story is so solid as well because the filmmakers had no choice but to go in that direction.  They had to accept and allow the story to unfold and be what it wanted to be.  It’s disappointing to me that the rest of the Pixar films (at least everything after The Incredibles) couldn’t be as on par and allow their films to bloom in the way that Toy Story does.  It’s just a great solid film, and one of my favorite animated films ever made.

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The Croods (2013) Dir. Chris Sanders and Kirk De Micco

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I’ve always liked Chris Sanders as an artist, but I have never been a huge fan of his films.  I like them, I’m just not flat out in love with them or anything.  Lilo and Stitch is a good film.  But I don’t always know whether its done any justice being under the Disney label.  It’s a little weird, which is fun, but I feel like it could have unleashed so much more, which just ends up making it moderately enjoyable.  As for How To Train Your Dragon, again, it’s a good movie.  But my feeling is that the film is a little too on the nose with it’s subject matter.  It’s kind of “Dragons 101” for anyone who wants to know more about their dragon.  In some ways, I almost wish it could have been a little less obvious.  For instance, I kind of wanted to see some boys with some girl dragons and vise versa, not simply seeing the dragons mimic everything about the characters personalities.  Part of the thing is seeing the dragons tell us aspects about the human character we don’t see on the surface.  We get some aspects of that in the film.  But overall the concept just didn’t blow me over.

Which leads me to The Croods.

I didn’t expect too much out of the film, at least at first.  But ever so slowly it started to grow on me.  I was amused at the funny introduction where the characters would “hunt” in what ended up being a kind of prehistoric football game with the whole family trying to work together to get an egg from a massive prehistoric bird.  I was a little worried at first because the main characters Eep and Grug seemed like yet another angsty teenage daughter story dealing with an overbearing father, which is so commonplace in animated films.  The one thing that was different about this film though, was the movie turned out to be more about Grug going on a journey to overcome his reliance on fear to stay alive.  I have to say that once the film got underway and the characters started off on their adventure, I completely fell in love with The Croods.  There is just incredible imagination at work here, with the wonderful and whimsical character designs for the creatures that inhabit this world.  The funny thing is that the monsters are so cute and equally terrifying at the same time!  Not terrifying in a way that’s going to frighten children, but they’re enough of a threat to keep you going with the characters, as they search for this uncharted world called “To Morrow”.

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The main reason this movie worked so well on me was the simpleness and uncomplicated nature of the story.  It’s very lighthearted and fast paced.  While I was left concerned for the characters safety, I never felt that we really needed to see any of the characters die to make this more engaging.  It never loses its sense of fun and it never takes itself too seriously.  It gently seems to poke fun at the overused father/daughter storylines we keep seeing in animated films, where Grug basically enforces that anything fun, anything that leads to curiosity leads to DEATH!  I didn’t think I was going to like Nicholas Cage being the voice for an animated character and didn’t believe his voice would be too monotone for animation.  I was wrong, and he does a wonderful job bringing Grug to life as a character, and between the voice work and the animation, he becomes a great, emotional, and well rounded character.

All the characters in The Croods are a joy to watch.  I loved Guy, the cave man who gets all the ideas, and introduces them to fire.  Grugs scenes are also hilarious when he tries to be like Guy and come up with inventions of his own, including “shades”, and then his invention of the “snapshot”, by covering his face in mud, then slamming his face against a rock for the imprint.  Every character has their moment.  What I also loved about The Croods as a family is that they are just hilariously weird and completely zany at times, partially due to the fact that they’re one of the only families left on the face of the earth.  The only character I wish had more development was Grug’s wife Ugga, who is played just a little too straight.  I almost wish there could have been room to give her some more zany attitude and fun like the rest of the family, but part of the problem too is that she kind of fades into the background at times.

Part of the adventure of the film is how the family slowly but surly steps away from Grugs over protective way of life and starts discovering new ways of living in this uncharted world.  Living in caves finally starts becoming unappealing to them, much to Grugs frustrations.  One of my favorite scenes in the movie was where the family gets split up in a canyon and everyone has to find their way out and come up with their own creative method to survive.  Everyone succeeds, except Grug, who is trapped and can’t get through based on his reliance of fear.  It’s not until the final scene, where Grug is ultimately tested when left alone to his own devices, he makes the flight to free himself.

One of the characters that stalks The Croods is a large Saber-tooth cat.  The cat is funny while also being a good threat to our heroes.  But the best scene in the film is towards the climax, where Grug is left alone and the cat stalks him in the caves.  Grug runs for his life holding a torch and being chased by the cat.  At one point the torch goes out leaving him in pitch blackness, and Grug blows frantically on the torch to get the flame back.  As the flame comes back, we also see the cat blowing on the flame trying to get it back as well!  The cat is afraid of the dark!  I died laughing at this moment because it became clear to me what the Saber-tooth cat was for Grug.  The cat is Grug’s dragon.  In this sudden twist, the two of them find each other, and the cat whose been chasing him the entire movie, no longer wants to chase him and doesn’t want to be alone in the dark.  Like Grug.  It was just a lovely, sweet moment.

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The movie almost never deviates from its light comical tone.  In some ways the movie kind of reminded me a bit of The Emperor’s New Groove, a movie that also isn’t meant to be taken seriously by any means.  It’s great to see cartoons like this, because a lot of times when the story gets heavy handed and serious, it looses its focus as a cartoon and loses its spirit of fun that we just want to embrace with certain films.  I just wanted more of the zany fun that The Croods provided, and it rarely ever lets itself get dragged down with heavy story material.  What helps too is that the story was co-written by Monty Python genius John Cleese, and once I found that out at the end credits, I could see the Pythonesque humor scattered all over the film.

The Croods is a joy to watch, and one of my very favorite animated films to come out in a long time.  I have to say that this is probably my favorite of all Chris Sanders films, because it’s a chance to see his weird side completely unleashed.  The animation is terrific, the visuals are stunning, and overall, this is just a really really fun film.  By all means, go see it while its still in a theater!

How The Iron Giant Changed Me As A Human Being

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This may surprise some people (even those who know me personally), but I have actually known who Brad Bird was for most of my life, long before I even saw The Iron Giant for the first time.  I was first exposed to his name when I was 8 and The Simpsons first came on, for which Brad served as Executive Consultant, and on occasion director for at least two 1st season episodes.  My parents have been taking me to the movies since I was a baby, and because my dad worked in the film business, we always stayed for the end credits.  Even at an early age I started to recognize names that would show up again and again.  Not just big names like Steven Spielberg, but I’d catch on to actors, writers, directors who would frequently show up.  I recognized Brad’s name from The Simpsons simply because I thought Brad Bird was kind of a funny name.  Over time, I started watching The Simpsons, and Brad was responsible for directing the season 1 classic episode, Krusty Gets Busted, where Krusty the Clown is framed for robbing a convenience store, and it was the introduction to the villainous Sideshow Bob.  It’s a funny episode for many reasons, one of them being that once Krusty’s goofiness is behind bars and Sideshow Bob takes over, he turns the show into an overly-intellectual droll literary hour.  But it’s a great episode and it got my attention as a kid.  After awhile I started to discover more of Brad’s work, eventually seeing Family Dog, the animated short film from Spielberg’s Amazing Stories series, and I began to think, “man, this guy’s pretty good.”

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But everything changed for me on August 6th, 1999.  It was the day The Iron Giant was released into theaters.  I was 17 years old at the time.  There was some pretty bland advertising surrounding the film.  As most of us know, the film bombed at the Box Office in part because of Warner’s failure to properly market the film.  But I didn’t have doubts going in, because I had heard Brad Bird was directing it, and from what I knew of the past works he had done, there was a chance the movie was going to be good.  By the time the end credits rolled, the word “good” for this film was an understatement.  Even “great” seemed low on the scale for a film like this.  At the time when I saw this movie, it was the single most life changing film I had ever seen.  It shattered all my expectations of what I thought an animated film should be.  It was a film so beautiful, so powerful in its message, story, and animation, that I never looked at animated films the same way again after this.  Before this film, I had been a Disneyite.  I based much of what I wanted for myself as an animator, like many people, through Disney films.  Pixar had not yet established itself, although Toy Story came out before The Iron Giant and I loved that movie.  But it was in no way the pinnacle life altering film that The Iron Giant would become for me.  Before when I was into Disney movies I had my sights set on becoming an animator and working for Disney as one.  After I saw The Iron Giant, I decided I wanted to become a storyteller,  a director, and a filmmaker.  The thing that attracted me the most to this film were its moments of darkness.  The Giants transformation into a killing machine is frightening and real, and it shook me out of my skin when I saw the sequence played out.  This was a character that had suddenly lost all hope in himself.  This is someone who lost all faith in the world and turned on a murderous spree.  True, in the movie, we never see the Giant actually kill anyone because the consequences would be too great and there would be no turning back for him if he actually ended someones life.  It’s only Hogarth who manages to stop him and bring him back from the abyss.  But what that sequence also showed me was the things you could do in animated films that Disney could not go.  There were people who already knew this if you had watched a lot of Japanese Anime, which tackles far more serious adult subjects for animation.  But this was the first American animated feature I had seen that was a family film, but took on serious adult themes, with serious consequences attached to the characters actions.  The Giant’s nightmarish transformation was unlike anything I had seen in an animated film.  It made me want to tackle darker themes in my own work and my own storytelling.

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My sense of humor has always been on the dark side, as have been the themes I wanted to explore in films.  In a way, it always felt edgy and cool to me because American Animation rarely ever tackled these areas, or at least, they used to until after The Little Mermaid came out, and it’s like it all suddenly stopped because everyone had their eye on animation as a moneymaker, and nobody wanted to do anything that would scare children and families away.  What’s interesting is the Iron Giant helped me unlock my love for films I saw growing up as a kid that were filled with dark themes, such as Pinocchio, The Adventures of Mark Twain, The Secret of Nimh.  Even films like The Brave Little Toaster had plenty of moments with frightening imagery, and it was great because these movies were never afraid to scare kids.  The simple truth is, unlike what most adults want to believe, kids love to be scared.  It’s not about always protecting our children, because as kids…the thing is…what frightens us also intrigues us at the same time.  Scary images are burned into our skull because it forces us to ask ourselves why the images frighten us.  What is it about watching an animated character in serious peril, or being attacked by a giant monster that makes us want to know where that monster inside us comes from.  It frightens us because we know that monster exists in all of us, and we see it exposed when we watch a film that traumatizes our minds.  I was much older when I saw The Iron Giant, but the killing spree frightened me just the same, knowing that myself or anyone that I loved could become a killer, or could be knocked off course from wanting to be the beautiful soul that they are.

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The soul however is the deeper layer to what The Iron Giant is.  I watched a seminar once taught by voice actor, Crispin Freeman, entitled Giant Robots and Superheros, which analyzed the mythological aspects and cultural differences where the Japanese like to write stories about Giant Robots and Americans like stories about Superheroes.  The Iron Giant brings the best of both worlds and takes it a step farther.  Here is the notion of a giant robot having a soul.  A machine having a soul and wanting to be more than it’s limitations.  It’s interesting because at the same time this film came out, there was another film that examined this aspect, called The Matrix.  That was another film combining machines and spirituality, where in that case the machines became self aware and wanted to turn against humanity, and the human, Neo discovers in his avatar form that he can bend the Matrix to his will, and eventually merging with it.  The Iron Giant is more family fare than the darker Matrix films, but at the same time the human element finds its way into The Giant.  Through his own spiritual journey he finds not only mentorship through a 9 year old boy, he also discovers Superman, and discovers in himself that is what he wants to be, an empowered being who uses his abilities for goodness in a harsh world.  The giant instantly relates to Superman because he is also misunderstood by those around him who fear him as a threat.  He is conflicted by his machine body, his ego telling him what he really is, which is an engine for destruction.  But he finds he doesn’t want to be that at all.  He wants to grow beyond everything he was designed for.

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There was a story where during the finale of the film when the Giant sacrifices himself to save the town, somebody in a story meeting for the film asked why didn’t the Giant just take one of his rockets and destroy the missle from a safe distance.  Brad’s point was that the Giant wouldn’t do that because it would mean turning himself into a gun, which is not what he wants to be.  The message, “You Are Who You Choose To Be”, becomes the center of the Giants whole purpose of being.  When I heard those words for myself as a teenager, it became the center of my own being as well.  They were powerful words I wanted to live by.  It led me down a hard road later in college, because I found myself drifting from the Disney animation status that I thought I wanted from the beginning.  I discovered that I came into conflict with my own desires as an artist when animation was suddenly not as important to me.  I have always had to struggle with my drawing, I couldn’t keep up with my peers at the time, and overall it made it a struggle for me when I felt I wanted a job vs. what I wanted for myself.  In a funny way, I could take The Iron Giant as an example of someone going through the same thing, as he was a being that was in conflict with what he was built for vs. the being he wanted to become, in a decision made on his own.  He fights and struggles because his body that he was built to be wants to keep him down and conformed, but his “soul”…and his awakening into his own being is the thing that transforms him and makes him the defining hero he always wanted to be.

What I have learned from this film, and what it has taught me has always been about following your guiding light…your intuition and your spirit to become the person you’ve always wanted to be.  This includes deciding how you want to approach your career, what you want to contribute to humanity, deciding the people you want to fall in love with, deciding what you want to take a stand for and what is most important to you.  It’s never about following a particular crowd or a religion because many times a religion forces you to fall back on your own body.  On the one end, its meant to keep you safe and keep you grounded.  But it can also keep you afraid an in the dark from the person you always want to become.  It can also tell you there is no other way except what is meant to keep you in line and in fear of following your path.  They are the voices in your head telling you not to go off into the woods because they are dangerous, they are full of turmoil, and you can damage yourself far greater when you let go of a chosen belief.  The conflict comes when you do go out into the woods, and the voices in your head are constantly telling you to come back, that you are putting yourself in danger and that you cannot survive on your own.  It’s why in The Iron Giant, when the Giant thinks Hogarth is dead and all is lost that he falls back on his “machine” life and turns into a weapon of destruction.  He doesn’t know yet that the choice is always within him, but because he lost Hogarth, there was no one left to make the choices for him accept himself.  And that can be a frightening thing.  When we hear the words, “You Are Who You Choose To Be”, it is exactly that.  There is no fear in deciding on the person you want to become.  We can get angry and conflicted when we suddenly find so many voices making the choices for us that we don’t want there anymore, which is what can lead to anger and a need to strike back.

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After I saw The Iron Giant, I wrote Brad two letters.  The first one I wrote to him because I was about to become an Eagle Scout.  I asked him in a letter to send me a congratulatory card with my Eagle Scout packet.  When you reach that level as a boy scout, you can ask for congratulatory letters from The President, Senators, or people you admire.  Brad’s card was the most important one in there, because for me having accomplished becoming an Eagle Scout, his card defined the person I wanted to become.  Brad has always been that symbol in my mind and my hero for all time and I have continued to aspire to be the image of what Brad is to me and the person I want to be.  He’s my “Superman” so to speak.  Later on I wrote Brad a second letter just asking him about being a director and how to become one, and he returned with a 2 page letter reply talking about schools, and what it’s like to be a filmmaker.  He even ended the letter with the simple words, that no matter where you go or where you end up, never forget the sage advice of young Hogarth Hughes, “You Are Who You Choose To Be”.

What is the film that most defines you as a person or as a filmmaker?  I think we all have it in us.  The Iron Giant was that film for me.  It made me want to be more than the sum of what people in everyday life expected from me.  I had to have faith in myself first to find that place for me and decide this is what I want.  The search continues throughout our lives as we go from one thing to another, working to follow our path until we find the direction that most defines the person we want to be.  It’s what we spend our whole lives searching for, choosing to be who we want to be no matter where the world drops us.  It’s up to you to decide what is most important for you and whether your own path is guiding you there.  If it isn’t, it could be time for a self examination to get yourself on track.  If you can do that, however, that you will discover that the universe is putting you in alignment, and the life you always wanted for yourself will have been laid out for you all along.

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