Sunday, June 29, 2008

Beyond tightly structured songs or: a robot with a rubber soul

Just a few links today:

For those of us who are stuck in Europe and therefore haven’t been able to see Wall-E yet, there’s actually a completely spoiler free essay over at Daniel Thomas McInnes’ Ghibli-Blog, in which he compares the steps in Pixar’s artistic evolution to the much beloved Beatles:

“It's exciting to watch. Pixar are now firmly into Phase Three, their Rubber Soul period.”

But even if you don’t care for the Beatles (is this possible at all?) he has some interesting things to say about the effect of the Disney-Pixar merger and the barriers of American animation that could only be torn down by Pixar.

“So, as I've said, if we're going to make better movies, we need to start making better audiences. But I rant enough on that topic. It's damn near the thesis of the Conversations on Ghibli blog. But this brings us, and Pixar, back to the only place anyone could turn to: Disney. Which is where Steve Jobs pulled off one of his greatest business deals.”

Thinking about artistic growth I was once again reminded of Disney history. Unlike the Pixar people, Disney’s core group of artists only developed their technical skills and their taste in stories but the films themselves and the storytelling were not improving at all after 1942. Mark Mayerson summed it up in this Apatoons-essay that ends with the following statement:

“What we have on film is an autobiography of sorts. It's a chronicle of the artists' attitudes about growing up, viewed over the course of their lives. It's too bad that while the artists grew up, the films didn't. The films became slicker, but they never really became deeper than they started out. If anything, as the artists grew older and got further away from their subject, the films became less compelling.”
And now for something (not) completely different: Hans Perk has started posting the Sleeping Beauty animation drafts.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

My short(s) attention span

Going through my Annecy notes again last night, I was surprised at how my opinion on some of the short films differs now from what I jotted down during or right after the screenings. Temporal distance certainly helps seeing things in perspective. [if you are just interested in a few reviews, please scroll down]

Of course, the succession of films in a 90 minute selection is very important to how I perceive each individual film because it dictates overall pacing as well as variety of subjects and styles. This becomes especially evident when a two-minute gag cartoon serves as welcome relief from sitting through 13 minutes of experimental slowness. These relief films tend to arouse more excitement than they actually deserve due to pure contrast in programming.

Other paramount factors that affect the viewing experience are my personal state of mind and outer circumstances such as high temperature or a highly responsive audience.
While by switching TV channels and surfing the internet we have learned to perceive a lot of different information in a very short period of time, this ultimately results in glancing at a lot of things but only superficially. What works perfectly for music videos, for example, is at odds with animated shorts.

I still find it quite exhausting to see 15 shorts in a row though, because I have to attune to new characters and stories every five to ten minutes. I even think that a whole DVD of (great) Looney Tunes (where I already know the characters) is more exhausting to sit through than, say, Kenneth Branagh’s four-hour Hamlet (1996).

Different from narrative live action films you have to get acquainted with and accept the visual style of an animated film first (shorts or features). It happens every so often that I reject a film on the basis of its style that is not to my taste. So I let my mind wander only to find out later that I may have missed a great story when I finally see the reason for this particular style.

Also short films fortunately are not confined exclusively to the classical three act structure, so there are endless possibilities for artists. On the other hand, as spectators we always have to adjust to the way a story is told (e.g. episodic, associative or experimental).

As I certainly love to discover new ways of storytelling, it’s still much easier for me to follow characters through a story with dramatic arcs and development. Part of the success of Peur(s) du noir (Blutch et al., 2007) as a feature – in my opinion at least – is the splitting and parallel editing of heterogeneous episodes that keeps the viewer’s interest awake even during weaker segments.

Now to come back to Annecy: in previous years there have been certain techniques (After Effects travellings, cut-out) that prevailed in competition films. Maybe things are more balanced now or I’m too close to see it, but this year I haven’t found such an overall trend.

Marina Rosset’s gentle student film la main de l’ours (CH 2008) reminded me of how little animation is necessary to make a beautiful story work (I have already seen it once before and therefore had a closer look at it). A voice-over narrator recounts the tale of three brothers living in a house in the middle of a glade. Much of its charm lies in the narrator’s sharing the youngest brother’s naïve point of view as he befriends a bear. The simple but delicate drawings suit the unprejudiced tone of the narrative.

Landing lights (Graham Young, UK 2007), a “realistic” looking experimental CGI film, managed to create a haunting atmosphere through total absence of human characters and expected sound effects. In a series of impressively lit framings an empty passenger airplane floats ghostlike through an equally empty skyscraper. Although there was no aircraft noise it reminded me of the penetrating experience of a landing plane and not of 9/11 as you might expect. This could have been one of my favourite shorts had it stopped after the first plane. But then there were three more flying through the same building which kind of ruined the initial impact for me.

When I saw the very last film in the very last competition reel I instantly knew this was going to be a strong contender for the audience award: Skhizein (Jérémy Clapin, F 2007). This short about a man who’s literally beside himself (by 91cm, to be precise) manages to incorporate 2D looking cut-out characters into a bleak 3D environment reminiscent of kitchen sink realism. All filmic devices are combined to tell a story that works on several levels. Of course, it is far from unconventional or daring, but it draws you in even after more than an hour of mixed short films.

There were two shorts that I got actively upset about. One of them was the Polish Kizi Mizi (Mariusz Wilczynski, PL 2007). But as much as I hated it during the screening – partly for it’s shameless re-use of scenes that already annoyed me the first time they came up – I have to admit that there were some formal aspects that somehow intrigued me. It is the love story “between a mouse and a cat, and the betrayal that steals into their relationship” as the press release said. Drawn in a crude black and white style one associates with Eastern European animation, every shot was framed in a different aspect ratio that suited the composition best, so the pictures never filled the screen. This permitted unimposing rhythmical play on the edges of the framing which sometimes worked in sync with the ticking of a clock on the soundtrack. There was also a lot of blurring separate layers throughout (like a multiplane camera going berserk) and a disgustingly beautiful French kiss scene. But the most audacious and striking element was a song by Peter Green and Fleetwood Mac that got played twice in full length! By the way, the end credits came two thirds in, with a lot of “story” going on afterwards. It made me really feel the 20 minutes it took…

To end this on a more positive note, I’d like to mention Passe-Vite (Ben Verschooris, Bert Dombrecht, Korneel Detailleur, 2006), a Belgian student film that made the most of its two minutes and classic stop motion setup. In a dark factory (made of rusty pipes) bananas and tangerines get assembled until increased production speed produces a squishy mess. You could read consumer criticism into it, but you don’t have to to fully enjoy it.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The blessing of digital restoration of pre-1989 Disney features

As I have stated earlier, the Platinum Edition of "101 Dalmatians" reminded me of some basic concerns about digital restoration in general and Disney feature restoration in particular. Apart from questions about different cuts or sound formats, I always ask myself:

Is this how the colors in the premiere print looked?
Or is this merely how they should have looked (on who’s authority?)?
Or even worse, have they just been adjusted to contemporary mainstream taste?
If so, do commercial considerations justify the removal of historical authenticity (grain, colors, cel reflections, everything that makes it a product of 1961 in the case of 101 Dalmatians) from a movie?

Color reproduction

Let's start on a detour: When I see an original painting in a gallery I’m usually quite astonished by how much it differs from the reproduction in the exhibition catalog – not to speak of other prints or digital formats. Reproductions are not only lacking nuances but sometimes certain hues (or all of them) are so different that the general impression of a picture comes across as totally different.

Femmes aux puits, 1892, Paul Signac

The three reproductions above are lifted off the internet “as is”. Of course the middle picture boosts contrast and saturation (something not likely associated with Neo-impressionism but with internet pictures). Compare picture 3 to picture 1 and notice how the overall warmer colors affect the sky and the grass. The orange woman is now surrounded by warm yellow, a neighboring color. The blue water contrasts much stronger with a salmon sky than in picture 1.

As colors are fundamental in conveying mood and emotion, even subtle differences affect the overall impression a picture makes on a spectator. Yet, accuracy in color reproduction is probably next to impossible. Analyzing a painting, you’d also have to take into account the present lighting conditions.

When it comes to restoring animated movies, the original artwork's color (which might also have faded) may differ greatly from the color timed premiere print that should serve as a frame of reference. As Bordwell points out (referring to "Funny Girl" (Wyler, 1968)), even with Technicolor dye-transfer movies sometimes there are not just one original print but several different ones. So if there is no clear frame of reference, particular characteristics of film stock, colored lighting under the camera, the amount of glass and cels overlaid, production notes etc. have to be taken into account.

Unfortunately I still couldn’t find any information about restoring "101 Dalmatians". There is an article on "Bambi" though, that illuminates some of the painstaking practice at Disney. (Apparently no cel painting errors have been corrected in the new "Dalmatians" DVD as was the case in "Bambi" for example.)

Removing the grain of history

From a historical perspective I’d prefer a restoration as close as possible to the version the audience saw upon original release. Of course, with some of the film makers still around to talk about their original intentions, it is tempting to update movies into something that may not have been possible at the time and that nobody ever saw before (Bordwell calls it “over-restored”). Apart from undermining historical limitations (like George Lucas using CGI to enhance his vintage movies), the memory of how something should have looked can as well be inaccurate.

As I have indicated, adjusting pictures to contemporary tastes is robbing them of their place and time in history. It would have been wrong for example to tone down the vibrant Technicolor hues in the recent restoration of "Rear Window" (1954) simply because this would have looked more natural to today’s audiences.

Of course, changes in taste accompanied the history of cinema since its beginnings. Initially most of the film prints were tinted, toned or hand-painted. But in later years the originals either faded or were considered bad taste and thus most of those films were only preserved or shown in black and white. When motion pictures were still considered a vaudeville gimmick, this practice was probably understandable. Even later though, there are examples such as the reframing of "Gone with the Wind" for its 70mm re-release or additional music for the American release of Miyazaki’s "Castle in the Sky".

It is a mystery to me, why Disney seems to omit the years of production of their movies on DVD covers in order to make them look contemporary (this, of course, excludes the Treasures series). Wouldn't it be easier to handle PC issues if the period of origin was stated clearly?

What bothers me most is the technique of separating the characters from the backgrounds in order to remove grain and lighting inconsistencies (see 2nd disc of "Sleeping Beauty"). This results in a CG-compositing look that draws attention to the absolute rigor of the backgrounds. As the ever changing grain rightfully may be seen as a flaw inherent to the medium, it nevertheless helped to keep the image alive. Without the grain, the characters' color areas are even flatter looking and the movie seems to freeze whenever a cel is held for several frames (quite often in "Dalmatians"). This ultimately draws our attention to the artificiality of the animation instead of letting us engage with the story.

As much as I admire the painstaking work of Disney's restoration team to make the new DVD look so gorgeous: if I watch "101 Dalmatians" I want to see a movie made in 1961 restored to its original splendor. If I wanted to see a state-of-the-art film of 2008, I'd go to see "Wall-E" or "Sita Sings the Blues".

Note: David Bordwell provides an interesting article about the restoration of Sony’s back catalog.
For further reading: Hans Perk on color reproduction;
Where’s the grit, Dirty Harry?

Sunday, June 15, 2008

An amazing week in France

Even though the short films competition wasn’t that strong, this year’s Annecy Festival was one of the best festival experiences ever. The animation community is clearly alive! It was proven that even a discipline like animation has its superstars. Everybody who wanted to get a ticket for Pixar’s Presto premiere (I didn’t get one and thus did not see the film) or the Simpsons Extravaganza (I was lucky this time) knows what I’m talking about. To see people standing in line for several hours “just” to get an autograph by Dick Williams or Matt Groening was quite an unusual experience.

But for me the absolute highlight in any category was John Canemaker’s presentation of The Art and Life of Winsor McCay! It was nothing less than a revelation.
If ever you thought that Gertie the Dinosaur (1914) was just a silly old hat every animation student has to sit through, wait till you see Canemaker presenting it the way it was meant to be shown – as a vaudeville act with live musical accompaniment (Serge Bromberg on the grand piano on stage). Of course the great historian also managed to comment on the historical process at the same time as encouraging the audience to participate in the act.

A day later, there was a so-called Meeting Event where Canemaker not only spoke about difficult subject matter in animation (such as incest, kids with cancer) but also analyzed two sequences from Fantasia (1940). He pointed out in what amazingly little time a great animator could show the thought process of a character very clearly. He also talked about the importance of exaggeration in squash and stretch even in such “realistic” animation like Tytla’s Mountain Devil. While answering questions on all kinds of topics he provided hilarious imitations of Bela Lugosi and Margaret Winkler. He didn’t even lose his patience when a lady in the audience asked a rather complex question and then left the room during the answer to make a phone call.

The Simpsons Extravaganza with hosts Matt Groening and David Silverman was pure entertainment as one can imagine. It started with a standing ovation and ended with a Q&A. Inbetween there were clips and facts galore. I also attended the Pixar Renderman presentation that included a lecture by Doug Sweetland about the “non-computer” work of pre-production at Pixar. A special treat was an improvised screening of the final hand-drawn animatic.

While I have seen all of the short films and student films in competition, I have only seen five features of which I will comment only on Idiots and Angels and the winner Sita sings the Blues.

If I had to prepare just one program of short films based on what I saw in Annecy it would probably look like this:

  1. Tot ou tard 5:00
  2. Like me only better 5:20
  3. La Main de l’Ours 4:30
  4. Meorot 4:20
  5. My Happy End 5:10
  6. Time is running out 6:35
  7. Passe-Vite 2:00
  8. The Bellringer 3:51
  9. City of Lights 4:36
  10. La queue de la souris 4:09
  11. Doxology 6:10
  12. La maison en petits cubes 12:03
  13. Operator 1:50
  14. Death by Scrabble 5:42
  15. KJFG No5 2:10
  16. Skyzhein 13:40

Thursday, June 5, 2008

out of the papers

Here in Switzerland there is a lot of buzz about the European Soccer Championship at the moment. So there are pictures of sportsmen in every paper or magazine. Since I've never been able to read an article about sports without falling asleep, I only occasionally looked at the accompanying pictures. But when I noticed the sometimes hilariously distorted faces these people in action had, I started to copy them in pencil. So here are some of those sketches...
Always a lot of people screaming their lungs out.
Here I tried to apply the boys' expressions to a cat character.

And last but not least: Lee J. Cobb drawn from a screenshot of On the Waterfront (Kazan, 1954) and applied to a Blair/Avery type of dog.

I hope I'll have some time in Annecy to sketch real people for a change.