Ursula as the Ghost Host (Unfinished)

I thought I’d put some of my animation talents on display for you.  This is an unfinished animation test I made of Ursula from The Little Mermaid reciting the opening spiel to The Haunted Mansion.  This is the first part of it which I got done in time for Halloween.  The rest will be coming soon, possibly in the next week or so.  The whole dialogue is about a minute and 20 seconds.  Here this version is about 20 seconds.  Enjoy, and Happy Halloween!

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Entertainment vs. Character vs. Story

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One of the things I find interesting is that whenever I read animation books about making films, the authors all like to say the exact same thing:  “The Three most important aspects of any movie is STORY, STORY, STORY.”  What is it about this mode of thinking that have defined the way animated films are made?  What does Story mean exactly?  For one thing, most people will tell you that your story is “about something”, indicating either a theme or a message.  But when I watch an animated film, I don’t find that story is as much the emphasis that ENTERTAINMENT is.

By entertainment, I don’t simply mean the things that make us laugh, but it’s everything that moves us about the story and carries us along.  Is it funny?  Exciting? Dramatic? Engaging?  What’s the hook to get people interested?  That’s entertainment, not necessarily story.  The story tends to imply something about a theme or a message that makes it appear more that the film is trying to say something.  But what we do know about the greatest stories told in film is that they aren’t boiled down to a single message.  There is something powerful going on in movies like Star Wars, The Iron Giant, Finding Nemo, Snow White and The Seven Dwarves, The Wizard of Oz, Ghost, or TV shows like Breaking Bad, Six Feet Under, etc.  Something about these films taps deeper into our psyche, and it’s not simply because they are good stories.  These films are enormously entertaining, and it’s a great story that evolves out of that.  The entertainment is what helps bring out the emotional center of these films.  What is a Bugs Bunny cartoon about?  What’s the meaning of a Wallace and Gromit short?  They just are what they are, yet we connect with them on a much richer, deeper spiritual level, than you would ever get from a film that has a lot of entertaining stuff going on, but then promotes a message “telling” you what the film is about instead of “showing”.

You’ll notice that the idea of slapping a message in animated films is something that actually came later on with the Disney “2nd Golden Age” as part of the formula for animated feature storytelling.  “Be Yourself.” (Aladdin) “Let your children be free to make their own choices” (The Little Mermaid), “Don’t judge a book by it’s cover” (Beauty and the Beast).  They’re all very good messages.  But that doesn’t mean that’s what the film is about.  Compare that now to a movie like “Sleeping Beauty”.  What’s the message of that film?  Or Snow White, Pinocchio, or Lady and The Tramp?  Walt Disney wasn’t as concerned with what his films were about as long as they moved people and were entertaining.  Some of these films are powerful and emotional, which really get us going.  You are entertained when you laugh, when you cry, when you’re shocked, when you’re thrilled.  Entertainment and story working together is what brings these emotions out of you, not simply story by itself that brings out these things.  I’m not suggesting that films like Snow White have no story.  What I’m saying is that for these films, the story comes out of the entertainment.  The story shouldn’t have to be based on a message or a moral.  It should be allowed to be its own thing in the same way it moves its audience.

This is part of the reason why I think Pixar’s latest batch of films have been so problematic.  They’re so focused on “Story”, and the idea that their films have to be about something that it loses the connection that the characters and the entertainment can bring us.  American films are primarily about entertainment.  Story and Character and Entertainment are one in the same thing.  When I was in college, my first film was a cartoon called Bear Food.  It was a silly little concept about a bear trying to get at a bag of food hanging in a tree.  The story wasn’t much deeper than that, and the entertainment was in the bear getting frustrated and losing control when everything he tried to get the food failed.  My second film The Jellyfish Girl was a different matter.  It started out more as an entertainment short, until I got the idea that my main character should die at the end of the short.  It was a much darker ending than what people anticipated.  I was excited that I was starting to come into my own as a storyteller.  But at the same time the short also corrupted me, as my focus tried to shift more into story rather than entertainment.  I kept screaming in my head “My next film has to be about something! It’s supposed to be about something! Whats it about!!”  I lost something when I started fixating too much on the overall story and just trying to let it be what it is.  It wasn’t until recently that I realized that the idea I had about the kid dying at the end of the short…was also about entertainment.  I didn’t think about why the kid needed to die or what my deeper intentions of the story were…I just wanted people to be moved…shocked, and upset.  That’s entertainment.  That was my reason for people watching the short in the first place, to lead up to that moment.  It was fixating on Story that made things so much harder because everyone kept telling me it was the most all important aspect of making a film.  It’s not.

It’s about the holy trinity working together in order:  Entertainment, Character, and Story.  What is the most entertaining aspect about a character?  What is it about the character that drives the story?  The story tells you inside what its really about (not the message or the moral, but the emotional center of the piece) and that comes back as entertainment.  But that’s not to say that every film is about entertainment.  Sometimes its purely character.  Sometimes it’s purely story or strictly entertainment.  But Story is not king.  In American animated features, it has and always has been about Entertainment first.  What the story is about is not so important as moving an audience.  In most animated features, putting Story first usually amounts to working with a formula.  I notice in Pixar films in particular, there is always a sequence that’s just about gags.  The story is still there, but takes a backseat to a string of gags, whether it’s about Toys or Bugs or Monsters or Fish.  These moments are cute, but they always bugged me a little because it’s like setting aside a little sequence to tell jokes instead of having them interwoven into the entire film.  This was done differently in The Incredibles, where the strings of superhero gags were part of the story, such as the films about the early days of the Supers, or Edna Mode’s “No Capes” speech, offering a string of gags that play a part in the story and aren’t just bundled together by themselves.

I want to mention one of my favorite Chuck Jones shorts, “Feed The Kitty”, an entertainment short that is about something.  If you’ve seen the film, Marc Antony is a bulldog who falls in love with an itty bitty kitten and wants to keep it for himself.  But he’s afraid his mistress (his owner) won’t let him keep it, so the entire short is a series of gags about how the dog is trying to keep the kitten out of trouble and away from his mistress.  There comes a point where Marc Antony thinks the kitten has been grinded in a blender and made into cookies that he thinks the kitten is dead (but we see the kitten was never harmed beforehand).  When Marc Antony discovers the kitten is not actually dead, and here’s the amazing part, he is overwhelmed with joy.  And so is the audience who actually had a little tear in their eyes.  Jones did not expect people to cry in that moment.  It was played for a laugh.  Because of that the short becomes about something…a much deeper connection is formed for these characters in the hearts of the audience (and it’s just a 6 minute short!)

What is the most entertaining aspect of any cartoon?  That’s a question that should be asked, and its what people want most when they see any animated film.  It’s the story that evolves out of that and helps us connect to a deeper place within our audience.

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.

BREAKING BAD: Walter White Is Not A Villain

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I just finished watching the finale of Breaking Bad, and was immensely pleased with how it turned out.  Not only did it tie up all the lose ends, but it brought meaning and self realization to a series that’s been an incredible journey.  As I like to say, it’s a good story well told, and it completes the perfect arc for one of the most inspiring and unique mythological characters ever created for a television series.  Walt’s journey is a mythical one, as it is fraught with serious choices and major consequences.  But after awhile, Walt starts to take it in stride, and embraces the side of himself he calls Heisenberg.  Here’s the thing, however.  I think there is a large misconception among people about Walt’s character.  Most people see him as an evil person or a villain.  I highly disagree.  I think Walt is a much more complicated character than to so neatly fit into one of those persona’s.  If I had a reason why people think of him as evil, its a reason for them to feel okay with watching his character do the things that he does.  As long in the back of peoples minds they acknowledge him as a bad person, it creates an easy disconnect so that the audience won’t fully have to identify with him.

Well, if you’re a fan of the show and you think Walt is evil, I’m going to challenge you on that perception.  Walt is not a villain.  He does a lot of terrible things, sure.  He kills people.  He’s gotten many innocent people killed because of his actions (the plane collision for instance).  He’s been terribly sadistic towards Jesse, even to the point of almost having him killed by someone else.  For awhile, his thirst for power and money consumes him.  There are many reasons for us to easily judge him as an evil man.  Except he’s not.

Walt is engaged in a spiritual journey.  The way it begins for him is harsh as he is pushed through desperate needs, because of his cancer, his pride, his failed opportunity to be a part of a multi-billion dollar corporation, his lack of health care and life in the poor house…his life is considered all for nothing.  Until he finds his calling as a meth cook.  With his incredible chemistry skills, Walt’s path to becoming a meth cook brings out the best and worst aspects of him.  The universe has guided him on several instances, and the best aspect of Walts journey is that he owns his destiny.  It’s a life that he admits at the end of the series that he built for himself.  Because he wanted it.  What he wanted most was for his life to matter, even if it meant going down as a criminal meth kingpin.  What is actually happening is an incredible transformation, as a butterfly of a whole new color begins to emerge.  And you know what?  Despite the fact that Walt dies at the end, he gets everything he wanted and does everything he set out to do in the first place.  Skyler finds it in her heart to forgive him.  He gets his money to Walt Jr.  And by setting Jesse free from the meth lab, in so doing he sets his spirit free.  There’s a reason Jesse, representing Walt’s younger self, is imprisoned in that meth lab by the end with no way out.  By the time Walt sets him free, Walt can begin the next leg of his journey.

I’ve thought of Walt’s death scene being a comparison to the end of American Beauty, just in the same way as Lester is looking at the photograph of his family before he goes…as Walt is looking around the meth lab before he goes, there is that moment where it all comes together, where the two characters see it all before them, their lives and everything that brought them to their current path.  They get it in that moment.  Walt doesn’t actually die at the end.  His spirit lives on through Jesse.  What I love about the end, is that when he falls to the ground, there is a sight smile on his face, just in the same way after Lester is shot, he has that same smile in his own pool of blood.  It’s an absolutely beautiful moment as Walter White has finally come home.

I’m sure what I’m saying might be a little difficult to understand about why for this reason I don’t consider Walt an evil person.  I don’t even consider it redemption.  I believe the purpose of everything he did was to lead up to this moment of self realization.  His path has a kind of flow, where we might put meaning to the death count in his wake, except in the end, it really has no meaning.  It’s just about this singular moment.

Like I said, calling Walt a villain makes it easier on people so they don’t have to connect with him.  But that’s not the reason we watch him.  We watch with fascination, wondering how and if this character is going to find his way to bliss, after committing so many horrible, awful acts.  I was watching Vince Gilligan on Stephen Colbert, and it’s interesting because he talks about Walt as being an evil character.  Except it’s a lie.  He knows consciously that Walt isn’t evil.  But he has to say it because otherwise people aren’t going to understand him and believe that he’s condoning meth distribution and murder.  Which he’s not.  Gilligan does the most noble thing he can do with his hero character, and that’s to not judge him.  None of the characters are judged personally through their actions.  There are prices to be paid and consequences for sure.  But we love these characters because they are being allowed to find their own way.  It makes them even more funny, sadistic, or even tragic.  It’s the best thing any writer can do for their characters which is to just let them go in their own way.  The characters story wants to be told.  And it’s a mythological journey about someone finding their place in the universe.  Walt thinks he’s going against the universe, but it’s actually there with him the whole time, allowing him to chose and find his own path.

So if you’re a fan of the show and you love Walter White, don’t be afraid to step outside for a moment that the character might be evil.  There’s more to him than people give him credit for.  I think there’s an important reason why so many people are in love with the show, and the reasons are because of our connections to myths.  Walter White will go down as one of the greatest hero characters ever created, and we have a lot to thank Vince Gilligan for his understanding of that.

Aladdin (1992) Dir. John Musker and Ron Clements

Aladdin1  One of my all time, joyfully favorite animated films is ALADDIN, brought to us during the high point of the Disney Golden Age.  It’s a toss up for me between BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and ALADDIN as to which is my all time favorite.  I suppose I would consider them equally superior films, but ALADDIN I saw at least 5 times when it was out in the theaters.  One of the great things about this film is that it energized the comedy aspect of what Disney films could be, having been influenced by a lot of Warner Bros style humor.  It also contains one of the great Disney Villains, Jafar, who instantly became a classic when this film first came out.  It’s a good story well told, and thankfully this is one of the few films where they didn’t let Robin Williams write the film with his fast talking dialogue as the Genie.  There are some animated films featuring Williams that let him go a little to far with the improvisation, forgetting about the rest of the story.  It takes about 30 minutes before the Genie is actually introduced into the film, but thankfully the energy of the film is high and it keeps its sense of humor at an equal level to Williams performance.

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I have always admired this film for many reasons.  Its one of the few Disney films that really tries to break out of the tired doldrum Disney humor, which often in the past has been considered cute and charming, but not exactly funny.  ALADDIN as a film is a standout among all those films, as the comedy is full charged and well executed.  It’s got a unique style, and is one of the first films in awhile to break away from the 80’s Disney style and allow other styles to influence it.  In this case, it was Al Hirschfeld’s quality line drawing, full of pleasing round shapes that add to the Arabic style.  In an interesting twist, the villain Jafar is played opposite the rest of the cast, full of sharp angles to make him more threatening.

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Jafar has always been one of my favorite villains, and one of the reasons I like him so much is that, while he’s a dangerous threat, he also has an understated sense of humor.  By the end of the film when he goes power crazy, he hilariously starts going into puns.  “Things are unraveling fast now, boy!” (unravels the magic carpet) “Don’t toy with me!” (turns Abu into a Monkey Toy) “I’m just getting warmed up!” (breathes fire) etc. etc.  It’s great that he can be funny as well as equally threatening.  While he brings a serious tone to the film, he’s never too serious that you can’t relate to him.

But of course, one the greatest animation performances in this film is the Genie, masterfully animated by the great Eric Goldberg.  I was watching a documentary on the film, and one of the funny aspects they brought to the character was that the Genie was made Jewish, and the joyful underlying concept of the film is that it’s actually a buddy comedy between a Jew and an Arab.  Animation has never been more manic than with the character of the genie, whose constant transformations are hit with perfect timing.  I remember the first time I saw animation of the Genie in a trailer for Aladdin.  I knew the film was going to be amazing because I had never seen Disney animation go to the level of energy as they did with the Genie.  He’s a great classic character, and an all time great comic performance, both by Williams and Eric Goldberg’s animation team.

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The other thing I want to mention about this film is the music.  Not just the great songs by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, but the great score by Alan Menken, which is one of my favorite of the newer Disney films.  It’s funny how the same score is played as a lighter playful theme for Aladdin, as well as being made ominous for the villain, Jafar.  It’s definitely a classic Disney score.

I imagine the film ALADDIN is probably responsible for a lot of the more comedic animated films we have today, although these later films seem to lack something when it comes to storytelling.  ALADDIN in itself is a blessing in disguise when it comes to how joyously fun it is as a film.  This film did a lot for putting pop culture references, but it does so in a way that makes sense, because the Genie can travel through time.  He can do anything.  So a lot of the jokes he makes, Aladdin kind of shrugs off because he doesn’t get it.  but the rest of the film remains true to itself and it’s comedy and shows it can handle its own even without the aid of Robin Williams.

ALADDIN is a remarkable achievement in animation and story.  Up there with THE EMPERORS NEW GROOVE, it is probably one of the most fun out of the Disney line up of films.  It’s a definite classic and truly one of the great animated films of all time.