Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Milky Waif – cheating continuity – part 1: introduction

Note: I suspect my posts are too long for most of you to read right away, so I try to divide them up whenever this is workable.

Recently I was studying some Tom and Jerry pan backgrounds which inspired me to put together some thoughts about screen directions and geography in these cartoons. It’s astonishing how little has to be correct in terms of background continuity as long as the few recognizable elements aren’t popping up in completely unexpected spots. In short, anything goes, as long as screen directions are consistent and eyelines match.

The Milky Waif
(released May 1946 as the 24th Hanna-Barbera T&J-short) is one of those censored* shorts that originally included blackface gags and derogatory slang imitations. If you haven’t seen it in a while, I’m sure you’ll find it somewhere around the web. The basis of my analysis is the version released on DVD in Europe on the second disc of “Tom and Jerry Collection” where almost all of them appear in chronological order. Although it might hardly be the most original or well animated of the lot, I have chosen this short because of its clearly limited indoor setting. It has become fairly well-known for the first appearance of the gray baby mouse character “Nibbles” who became Jerry’s longest running sidekick and ally.

The censored version at hand contains 67 shots (not counting any title cards and logos) for which 38 backgrounds seem to have been used. As could be expected in a cat-chases-mouse cartoon there are some rather long pans among them.

 First I’d like to sort out the relevant parts of the set: there is the iconic mousehole, then we have an equally iconic tiled kitchen floor, there’s a fridge (that is never opened, it just prevents us from getting lost in the kitchen), there are green stools all around. In the nearby living room there’s a blue carpet on a beige floor.

These design elements are so iconic that mock 40s cartoons like Roger Rabbit are drawing on our unconscious knowledge of cartoons:

As movable props we have a clearly recognizable yellow bowl of milk, a few straws, a red hammer, a frying pan, a milk bottle, some books and a fly swatter. In the finale, Jerry uses a garbage can and a mallet.

As you might have noticed yourself, the colors are different in each available version of these shorts. I do not usually color correct them for analysis (at least not without indication) because it is important to me that the source of the images remains identifiable. In other words, I’m analyzing what is there and not what I believe should be or once was there.

Colors of the same backgrounds and characters vary considerably from shot to shot due to aperture and lighting. It’s important that in the case of these transfers we don’t read too much into such visible changes. They are the product of getting evenly lit shots (or faded prints) rather than subtly planned effects. So the following color swatches represent general color choices only.

Background colors in these 40s shorts are always softer than the characters because they are painted in water colors. The watercolor kitchen for example is made up of soft pastel colors:
As opposed to the strong and opaque cel paint of the characters (this overview is deceiving because the strong body color should take much more space than the other colors):
Jerry                                  Tom 
(slightly reddish probably due to fading print)

The prop colors (cel paint, of course, not water color) are even more saturated than the characters’ brown/orange and gray/blue.

* for those interested in the uncut version (which you’ll find on youtube), wikipedia’s plot synopsis is accurate: 
"Jerry and Nibbles hide in a closet, while Tom hammers on the door. Seeing a chance to use deception, Jerry uses a container of nail polish he discovers to disguise himself and Nibbles as a pair of black people. Emerging from the closet, Jerry, dressed in headscarf and in blackface, greets Tom: "How you doin', Mister Tom?" and beckons Nibbles, his "honey child," to hurry up. Out comes Nibbles, also in blackface and wearing a headscarf. However, the disguise is revealed when Nibbles' diaper falls down, exposing his tail and gray fur. The chase continues, eventually leading to Jerry grabbing a frying pan and hitting Tom full in the face with it, knocking him out.” 
The end cut happens right after the last frame of disguised Nibbles running through, thus only leaving in the frying pan banging in Tom's face.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Face Accent

When I watched Firefox (Clint Eastwood, 1982) - a truly awful Cold War movie - the other day, there was a moment (lasting barely a second) that made me wince unexpectedly, not because of some filmmaking trick but due to controlled acting. It was this one shot that still lingers on in my mind, so I decided to take some screengrabs and post it here as an acting study.

What I'm writing about here is fairly conventional stuff, but stuff I tend to forget about when falling back into animation acting clichés.

Like the hard-boiled crooks in film noir classics, Eastwood's Russian military antagonists move as little as possible when they talk.This, of course, helps establish the stiff military environment. If Eastwood as a director is capable of one thing, then it's most classic straight forward film making that never draws attention to itself. (Part of what makes this movie so unbearable is his heavy-handed earnestness applied to a preposterous story.)

What we have here is a lenghty suppressed power play between the sober Soviet general Vladimirov (Klaus Löwitsch, one of Fassbinder's stars, condemned to play communist bad guys in 80s Hollywood) and the First Secretary (Stefan Schnabel), who is outraged about Eastwood stealing a MIG31 ("the firefox"). The scene is intercut with two parallel outside actions and - just before the climax - with reaction shots of the rest of the crew, which I have all left out.

In the first part of the scene, Vladimirov's eyes are almost always in the shadow. He is left in the frame, while the First Secretary is halfway in light and backed by his subordinates.
Then Eastwood shows us the spatial relations because one of the two radio guys in the front is receiving new information. It's interesting that he doesn't cut to an immediate close-up of the radio guy but stays on the ensemble to have us see the reaction of all people involved.
Then we come back to the antagonists, only closer this time.

After a few shots of a parallel scene we are back in the control room where the two have changed positions.
Vladimirov is still surrounded by darkness but his face is lit from below.
By classically cutting closer to the opposing faces (with large shadow areas, one of Eastwood’s most obvious trademarks), the tension is heightened. So when the climactic upshot (another one of Eastwood’s trademarks) finally appears, we only see facial features lit from below.

The climax of this power play scene: the general accuses the First Secretary (the real big shot here) of being stupid in front of all his men. After a short silence, the general now reverses the chain of command and tells the first secretary: “you must act, first secretary!”.

If you listen to the dialogue snippet, the accent lies on the word “act”. In animation we tend to accent this word by a strong head move (with a big anticipation maybe). Now a big head accent would destroy the rigid composition and would also appear out of character for the general. Instead the actor goes for what I call a face accent:

In this video you see each individual frame (roughly a second of screen time) for half a second.
If you overlay frame 1 with frame 17 (the extreme position), you see how little the head moves, yet how strongly the face is distorted:

The beautiful thing: In animation we could go much further with the distortion.
This shot also shows how the expression change is not happening all at once. Just study the timing on the various features like eyelids, eyebrows, cheeks and mouth. There are so many details here. Note how before the accent (frame 11-14) he doesn’t look his opponent into the eye but slightly dow. Here are the 25 frames used in the slow-motion video (the last one is next to the First Secretary's reaction shot):

Monday, February 1, 2010

Pierre Lambert's Lavish "Le Livre De La Jungle"

French author Pierre Lambert once again publishes a ridiculously expensive art book that is worth every cent. Although in numbers there may be less artwork on display here compared to the usual “Art of” book, but with so many production backgrounds reproduced in the most astonishing print quality, Lambert’s large format volume about Walt’s last feature The Jungle Book is nothing less than marvelous.

The Art Of Animated Features
Nowadays, “Art of” books accompany the release of almost every American animated feature. More often than not, those books simply seem to remind us how much individual style had to be suppressed to come up with widely acceptable mainstream aesthetics. The historical information these books provide seldom goes beyond self-congratulatory making-of stories common in DVD special features, which looks less embarrassing printed on glossy paper.

One gets the impression that, according to these books, the “art” of animated films is based on “unique” superficial styles (later considerably toned down for the finished film), focussing on design rather than on animation. Without wanting to sound too conservative, in the case of the features made during Walt Disney’s lifetime, most often I actually like what ends up on the screen and not just the preliminary artwork. Already back then, the mantra that you couldn’t get too graphic in a feature without losing character believability was repeated over and over, but even the blandest character designs came to life through animation.

Before the 1990s, “behind-the-scenes” material was only available in a few Disney endorsed books, especially the luxuriously illustrated but heavily biased ones by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. Meanwhile there are lots of wonderful Disney endorsed books by historians like John Canemaker and Brian Sibley that are full of preliminary art and lavish color plates. On the other hand, such indispensable independent books as Didier Ghez’s self-published interview collections or Michael Barrier’s thoroughly researched works cannot rely on the same wealth of artwork.

The Art Of Making Art Books
There is a third way, though: French author Pierre Lambert’s way. What makes Lambert’s independently published books so unique is their dignified presentation and the amazing print quality of his handpicked reproductions (backgrounds with cel overlays are even printed on gleaming paper to simulate real cel overlays). Currently, there is nothing comparable on the market.

I first heard of Pierre Lambert in 1997 when his lavish "Pinocchio" book was released in English and reviewed on German television. I wasn’t too familiar with the internet back then and without a credit card I wasn't able to order the book through Later on, when I finally figured out how to get it, it was already out of print.

So when I heard about Lambert’s new release "Le Livre De La Jungle" (The Jungle Book), I knew I had to get it immediately at all costs, since The Jungle Book has always been my favorite Disney movie and I’ve been waiting for such a book for what seemed like centuries.

Most books that deal with Disney studio history in general do not devote more than a few paragraphs to Walt’s last feature, most often dismissing it as below average but extremely popular with audiences.

On a side note: the most interesting background information so far can be found in the special features DVD of the platinum edition that presents many previously unpublished storyboards and other preliminary sketches. The highlight for me was the collection of abandoned Terry Gilkyson demo recordings and a more Beatles-inspired demo of “That’s what friends are for”.

Kipling, Peet, Disney – Three Opposing Forces
But back to the book. Pierre Lambert’s French text is a little gem all by itself (sometimes it comes in handy that in Switzerland you’re forced to learn French in school). Even though there is no newly acquired information (all the interviews have already been published elsewhere), this is the first time all these sources have been put together so neatly. Lambert starts with Bill Peet's recollections of the project’s origins and then compares Kipling’s, Peet’s and Disney’s version of the story. For every crew member he introduces he seamlessly incorporates a short but very insightful biographical overview, largely focussing on the people whose contributions finally made it to the screen.

While Lambert obviously writes from an admirer’s point of view, he never feels the urge to gloss over ruptures and studio mythology incompatibilities. He adresses re-use and questions the “time-saving” part of this strategy by quoting John Ewing about having to redraw a chase sequence from Mr. Toad. As The Jungle Book is much more character than story driven, Lambert structures his text around the development of the characters.

The Selected Artwork
One can only dream about what film this would have been had Peet, Peregoy and Gilkyson got their way. But while not suppressing any evidence of different versions Pierre Lambert focuses on the artwork of the film that finally got made. Mostly production artwork - animation art, that is.

After about twenty pages of text the artwork is presented in the order of the events in the film. While sketches by Ken Anderson and Al Dempster as well as a lot of uncredited works are present, most of the book is filled with gorgeous background paintings (sometimes with cels and overlays) and animation drawings. The only non directing animators featured are Eric Larson (vultures) and Eric Cleworth (elephants).

I don’t know how much of Walt Peregoy’s original concept art is still buried somewhere in the ARL or if he has taken it with him when he left the studio in 1965, but at least there is one painting of the man village credited to him in the book (page 217).

Compared to the strange Jungle Book selection in (John Lasseter’s ?) “Archive Series: Animation” the selected animation drawings here - from the loosest Ollie Johnston drawing of Mowgli hugging Baloo to Frank Thomas’ solid King Louie - really do justice to their creators.

The same cannot be said of many of the reproduced cels, though. Hardly any of the selected (available?) original production cels are key frames. While it is desirable to have setups that differ from the familiar ones, not every inbetween is a great drawing (which is ok in motion).

The Trouble With Cels
That’s also where the process of reproduction reveals its only flaw: cels and overlays look like they have been photographed/scanned in front of a white background, then digitally rotoscoped/cut-out and overlaid over the production backgrounds. Sometimes the white edges show, sometimes the pencil outlines are cut fuzzily. Also some of the multiplane overlays and imitated special effects don’t work very well, as is the case in some Shere Kahn cels with grass overlays (page 197) that originally looked slightly translucent (like in the screenshot on the left).

In order not to gray down the backgrounds that are the main attractions, this process is understandable and thus acceptable. What is not, in my opinion, is that some of the cels are wrongly adjusted or even in front of the wrong backgrounds, like the one on the cover. Why would anyone want to do that? These layouts may not have been planned to be seen in their entirety but they certainly have been planned with character positions in mind.

cover setup (2009) vs. story book setup (1982) 
vs. screenshot (Platinum Edition, cropped at 1:1.75)

I have another minor quibble though: I was a little disappointed that apart from one or two preliminary backgrounds attributed to Al Dempster, there are no background or layout credits at all. I guess there’s no way to find them out as there seem to be no background drafts, but if someone knows, I’d be glad to put a reference list together.

Already A Personal Favorite
One of my personal discoveries was how much of the character designs is still present in Bill Peet story sketches, although he left the studio before Walt commissioned the re-write by Clemmons, Wright and Gerry and remains completely uncredited. There are sketches of Kaa and Shere Kahn that really put Ken Anderson’s and Milt Kahl’s contribution in context. While Bill Peet was vengeful about Tytla getting credits for Dumbo animation Peet thought was already present in “his” storyboards, Kahl has made the two characters so much stronger by just a few alterations (Peet’s version of Kaa resembles the one in the beginning at night and not the later daytime design).

All points of criticism aside, this is already one of my most beloved Disney books ever. Get it while you can, even if you don’t speak French, because it’s the reproduced artwork that makes this book special. There are already rumors that there may be an English version sometime soon.

All screenshots from The Jungle Book Platinum 2-Disc Edition DVD.