Category Archives: Animation

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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A New Light

rainbowI’m in the midst of an artistic breakthrough at the moment. It’s going very well actually.  When you go through something like this, it’s like tapping into a new power you didn’t know was there in you all along.  Sometimes it gets a little confusing when you go through these ups and downs wondering what the universe is trying to tell you.  It can even be a little nerve-wracking!  But it’s a wondrous sensation.  You break through the walls, and finally free yourself to be the artist you always were but never knew existed.  All that pain and life experience you went through pays off in a moment such as this.  It’s stimulating, awe inspiring, and it’s the gateway to another world.  When you take the red pill, and walk through that door, your world is never the same again.

So I’m going celebrate freeing myself now with some Freling.  😉

New Page Added: Cartoon Murals!

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A brand new gallery has been added to my website.  Now you can see all the cartoon animation murals I’ve done in the past. Check them out here! Or click on the Carton Murals link on the header bar.

Hollywood Adventure! w/ Jason and Hutton

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Today I present a photo tour of Hollywood, with my special guest, Horror Film Historian Jason Andreasson (creator and co-host of the terrific podcast Terror Transmission) and also joining us was his lovely partner, Hutton Dart. We visited several major locations, including the Hollywood Museum, a few famous shooting locations, Protek Film Vaults, George Barris’ Car Shop in Toluca Lake (the man who built the original 60’s Batmobile, K.I.T.T. from Knightrider, and the Munster’s car), and a personal grand tour of the Walt Disney Studios Lot in Burbank!  Here we go!

bodysnatch6 First stop, Jason is standing next to the Hot Dog Show building in Burbank, which can be seen (from the image above) in the 1956 classic horror film, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers.

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ABOVE:  Jason and Hutton are standing in the middle of Protek Film Vaults in Burbank. Protek is a major three vault storage facility for the major studios. Many of the most important and well known films in Hollywood history are stored within these vaults.

BELOW: our visit to the Hollywood Museum next to the corner of Hollywood and Highland.

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Max Factor’s Clockwork Orange Beauty Calibration Machine.

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I’m not mentally ill, just possessed by Satan. 😉
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“If the Hays Office would let me, I’d give ’em the bird all right!”
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The 8,000th Wonder of the World
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It’s funny because it’s true. 😉
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The Munster Mobile

Next stop, George Barriss Custom Cars in Toluca Lake.  BELOW:  I’m standing next to one of (I think 5) of the original Batmobiles built for the 1960’s TV series.  (The Black car behind the Batmobile is K.I.T.T. from Knightrider)

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And now…we take you on the Backlot of Walt Disney Studios!

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I’m standing next to a complex Animation Camera called the Multiplane camera. This camera was developed to create the illusion of depth, by placing background layers on several different levels, allowing the camera to truck in past several background layers. A few other cameras were built. It was first used in the 1937 Disney short, “The Old Mill”. The technology was used all the way up to The Little Mermaid (1989, the final film to use the camera) and by then the digital CAPS system had been created to do multiplane effects.

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The plaque I’m touching is for my animation idol and Disney Legend, Vladymir Tytla (Bill Tytla), who animated Stromboli, Monstro, Grumpy, Chernabog (Devil on Bald Mountain), and Dumbo and his mother.
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Animation Maquette of LeFou from Beauty and The Beast. These statues were created for reference so the animators could see the character when they had to draw it at different angles.
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One of the Underground Tunnels at Disney between the Old Animation Building and the Ink and Paint Building. The tunnels were used so the Ink and Paint people could carry animation cels to the Animation Building without the cels being exposed outside to weather and the elements.
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Our guide Steve Allen, who is the head of Disney’s Film Archives Department, showing us a negative print for an old Black and White Mickey Short

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A peek inside this soundstage (don’t know what they were filming), but if you look at the floor, it’s removable, and underneath is a 20ft deep tank. This stage was used all the way back to film the 1954 Disney Classic 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea

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It was thrill getting to take Jason and Hutton around to these historical landmarks, as they have always been on my must-see list despite being in my very own backyard!  It gives me the perfect excuse to check these places out.  This won’t be the last tour I take with my friends, who will definitely be coming back for more Hollywood adventures later on.

To close our trip, Jason has a little farewell for message for you.