1988: The Second Walter Lantz/AFI
Animation Seminar

In this photo are some of the participants on June 11, 1988: from left, top row, Vivian Procopio; Bill Peet; Bob Kurtz; Donald Crafton; Jim Lindner; Leo Salkin; John Canemaker; Rick Reinert; Harvey Deneroff. Middle row, June Foray; Sody Clampett; Faith Frenz-Heckman; Walter Lantz; Frank Paiker.
Bottom row, Terry Thoren; unknown; Jerry Beck; Charles Solomon; Will Ryan. Click here to enlarge.

In 1988, I was the Guest Curator of an animation symposium held at Universal Studios in Los Angeles, the second in a series of three annual conferences on “The Art of the Animated Image.”  Each was financed through the generosity of cartoon producer Walter Lantz (1899-1994) and the American Film Institute.

For “Storytelling in Animation,” the topic selected for the one-day conference held on Saturday, June 11, 1988, I wanted to offer attendees a wide-ranging overview of the subject.  Looking back, after nearly thirty years, it was a never-to-be-repeated moment, when animation stood on the cusp of radical change.

The conference drew together, on stage and in the audience, veterans of the silent film era and the golden age of the Hollywood cartoon; experimental animators; animation historians and authors; and newcomers finding their way at the dawn of CGI and what would be the final burst of Disney hand-drawn animation.  Film clips illustrated the discussions.

Donald Crafton, left, leads a discussion panel consisting of veteran animators Ollie Johnston, Walter Lantz, Dave Tendlar and Frank Thomas.

Still photos illustrating this post show some of the event’s participants and audience members.  Though the symposium was not videotaped or filmed, an anthology that I edited (Storytelling in Animation: The Art of the Animated Image, Vol. 2) was published in conjunction with the conference. It contains articles on aspects of animation storytelling, as well as selected transcripts of speeches, panel discussions and interviews.

 

Available through out-of-print online dealers, here are the book’s chapters:

  • Introduction – John Canemaker
  • Disney’s Pigs Is Pigs: Notes from a Journal, 1949-1953 – Leo Salkin
  • Some Observations on Non-Objective and Non-linear Animation – William Moritz
  • In the Matter of Writers and Animation Story Persons – Harvey Deneroff
  • Frustration – Shamus Culhane
  • Storytelling as Remembering: Picturing the Past in Caroline Leaf’s THE STREET – Thelma Schenkel
  • A Conversation with Caroline Leaf – Moderated by John Canemaker
  • Computers, New Technology and Animation – Moderated by James Lindner, with John Lasseter, Tina Price and Carl Rosendahl
  • Studio Approaches to Story – Moderated by John Canemaker, with Bill Peet, Joe Ranft, Jerry Rees and Peter Schneider
  • Still is the Story Told: Disney and Story – Robin Allan
  • Animation is a Visual Medium – Charles Solomon
  • Who Framed Roger Rabbit: The Presence of the Past – Susan Ohmer
  • The Little Girl/Little Mother Transformation: The American Evolution of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – Karen Merritt
  • Walt Disney’s Peter Pan: Woman Trouble on the Island – Donald Crafton

It was an exhilarating, informative, fun day.   I recall, with great fondness, Hicks Lokey (1904-1990) showing Don Crafton and me some of his animation sketches for Dumbo’s Pink Elephants and Fantasia’s Dance of the Hours; and meeting Frank Paiker (1909-1989), cameraman at J.R. Bray’s studio in the 1920s  — where he met Walter Lantz — and later became a technical supervisor at Hanna-Barbera Studios.

Bill Peet

It was a thrill to meet Bill Peet (1915-2002), one of Walt Disney’s greatest story artists.  On his panel (“Studio Approaches To Story”), he spoke in a raspy whisper, due to throat cancer, but everything he said was pure gold.

For example:

The first thing you have to have is a set of characters that can carry you through the story once they’re established. That’s the most important part.  It’s like a train leaving the station without passengers: if you don’t have characters from the word go, you don’t have the story really started . . .

. . . for animation, you need strong, definite personalities, so that you can have broad and explicit action, and they’ll be no doubts what your characters are thinking.  In animation, we’re not trying to duplicate live-action or realism. We’re trying to make it larger than life. We want exaggerated actions and attitudes.

A Bill Peet story sketch from Dumbo. Copyright © Disney

Peet often disagreed with Disney when they worked together, and he did so again on the Lantz/AFI panel:

One thing I want to say here today:  after Walt Disney had made a big success with Snow White, his next thought was to make films more realistic,more impressive, and more pretentious.  And I think he was going in the wrong direction. What makes Snow White is the marvelous personalities, and not its attempts at getting more conventional.

I remember he tried multi-plane camera work, and all the technology available at the time, but I still say the charm of animation is the obvious appearance of it. It always has been, no matter how elaborate you can make it.  Animation stands alone.

Also on that panel, and in awe of Peet’s creativity, was Joe Ranft (1960-2005), then age 28, who became my close friend.  Joe would join Pixar and Toy Story four years later, but he was already considered one of his generation’s finest story artists.

The “Studio Approaches to Story” panel members, from left: moderator John Canemaker, Bill Peet, Joe Ranft, Jerry Rees and Peter Schneider.

When I asked him “how sacred” should the original story material for a film be, Joe responded:

I see it as a jumping-off point, and I try to maintain fidelity to the original material in spirit while . . . exploring the possibilities of entertainment. We really see that as a storyman’s job;  to get as much entertainment as possible. You can veer away from the material, but sometimes you’ll break the essence of what this story is if you go too far away.  So you have to go to the edge, and come back. 

John Canemaker and Caroline Leaf

The storytelling power of Caroline Leaf and her award-winning films were honored in a special film tribute.  On-stage, she discussed with me The Street (1976), her extraordinary, dark, emotional animated short, which was painted with her fingers frame-by-frame on underlit glass.  The story, she recalled, based on a Mordecai Richler book,

was maybe twenty pages, and at first I thought that to be respectful to the writer I should put everything onto film. And I found as I was working, the more I could pare away the words and just work with the imagery and be true to the feeling I was getting in the story, the better it worked on film.

The Street, by Caroline Leaf. Photo © National Film Board of Canada

For The Metamorphosis of Mr. Samsa (1977), Caroline focused on one area of the complicated Kafka story:

(H)ow horrible it would be to have a body, or the external part of one’s self that’s seen by the world be different from what’s inside one’s self, and not be able to communicate that.

John Lasseter’s comments on the “Computers, New Technology and Animation” panel are fascinating to read today. Here’s a sample:

With computer animation you can do anything if you have the time and the money, but, to me, there are some very strong limitations when you’re dealing with a character.  Luxo Jr. (1986) came about when we were learning the system, and I modeled this character of a Luxo lamp . . .

The success of Luxo Jr. was a real surprise to us, to be honest . . . When we premiered it at SIGGRAPH, the computer graphics conference, it got a tremendous reaction, and it was scary in a way.

Jim Blinn, who’s one of the premiere scientists in computer graphics, came running up to me after the screening, and he goes, “John, John, I have a question for you.” And I thought, “Oh boy, umm – I don’t know much about the shadow algorithm or something like that.”  And he said, “John was the parent lamp a mother or a father?”

That excited me more than anything else in the world because the film had achieved what I wanted it to:  let the story and the characters be the important aspect, not the technology.

Luxo Jr. © 1986 – 2017 Pixar.  All Rights Reserved

During the conference, a couple of aesthetic gauntlets were figuratively thrown.  Good grist for discussion, I say.

Dr. William Mortiz (1941-2004), esteemed scholar, teacher, champion of experimental film, and Oskar Fischinger biographer, noted in his sly essay that “No animation film that is not non-objective and/or non-linear can really qualify as true animation.”

. . . watching a drawn coyote crash through walls, fall down stairs, be crushed by falling objects or burned to a crisp by the explosives he holds is certainly not as amazing or funny as seeing Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin or Harold Lloyd of the Keystone Kops do those same stunts live right before our “camera-never-lies” eyes.

Shamus Culhane (1908–1996), animator (he marched the seven dwarfs “Heigh-Ho” in Snow White), successful TV commercial director/producer, could not attend.  But he insisted that his brief essay be read aloud before the panel he was invited to participate on.  Based on an epiphany Culhane experienced after watching the free-form techniques used in animated films produced at the National Film Board of Canada (sand, clay, pin screen, paint-on-film stock, etc.) his essay attacked what he called the “mind-shackling cel system,” and concluded “it will be a great day for the art form when the last film using cel animation is finished.”
Ka-boom!

Culhane’s confession/diatribe was read in front of and tolerated with icy silence by panelists Lantz, Tendlar, Johnson and Thomas, all traditional hand-drawn, cel technique animators, like Culhane.

But the feisty Irish-American native of Manhattan’s Yorkville proved prescient — two years after the 1988 conference, Disney replaced cels with the Computer Animation Production System (CAPS), and three years after that, John Lasseter started production at Pixar on the CGI feature Toy Story.

 

I want a president.

Walking fast on New York’s magnificent linear High Line Park on a recent brisk February day. A giant 20-by-30 foot poster, installed on a pillar of the Standard Hotel, stops and holds me mid-stride.

The typewritten text, words crossed out on a single page torn and tattered by exposure to the elements since October 2016, rivets me and other visitors passing by.

Written a quarter century ago by queer feminist activist/artist Zoe Leonard, I want a president is, at once, a poem and a political manifesto — direct, blunt, heartfelt and angry.

It remains urgent and relevant today, as our country may be circling the drain, thanks to government-induced and sanctioned exclusion, racism, homophobia, misogyny, narrow-minded ignorance, incompetence, and a distressing lack of empathy for nature, humanity and the human condition.

In a statement, Leonard explained: “I am interested in the space this text opens up for us to imagine and voice what we want in our leaders, and even beyond that, what we can envision for the future of our society. I still think that speaking up is a vital and powerful political act.”

Here is Leonard’s poem:

I want a dyke for president. I want a person with aids for president and I want a fag for president and I want someone with no health insurance and I want someone who grew up in a place where the earth is so saturated with toxic waste that they didn’t have a choice about getting leukemia.  I want a president that had an abortion at sixteen and I want a candidate who isn’t the lesser of two evils and I want a president who lost their last lover to AIDS, who still sees that in their eyes every time they lay down to rest, who held their lover in their arms and knew they were dying.  I want a president with no air-conditioning, a president who has stood in line at the clinic, at the DMV, at the welfare office, and has been unemployed and laid off and sexually harassed and gaybashed and deported. I want someone who has spent the night in the tombs and had a cross burned on their lawn and survived rape. I want someone who has been in love and been hurt, who respects sex, who has made mistakes and learned from them. I want a Black woman for president. I want someone with bad teeth and an attitude, someone who has eaten that nasty hospital food, someone who crossdresses and has done drugs and been in therapy. I want someone who has committed civil disobedience. And I want to know why this isn’t possible. I want to know why we started learning somewhere down the line that a president is always a clown. Always a john and never a hooker. Always a boss and never a worker. Always a liar, always a thief, and never caught.

–Zoe Leonard, 1992

 

Deja View: The Art of Andreas Deja
at the Walt Disney Family Museum
March 23 – October 4, 2017

Andreas Deja speaking in my Animation Production class at NYU Tisch School of the Arts on April 18, 2005. He delighted the students with his in-depth lecture on drawing techniques and staging for the moving image.

Audiences around the world have thrilled to the sly villainy of Scar in The Lion King, Jafar in Aladdin, and the Janus-faced Gaston in Beauty and the Beast, all brought to life by master animator Andreas Deja.

Andreas’ subtle touch allows moments of laughter to seep through their malice, but makes it clear that these full personalities are vicious creatures, not to be trusted.

Andreas Deja’s brilliant early concept sketches of singer/actress Eartha Kitt for Yzma, the evil-doer in the animated feature Kingdom of the Sun, which became The Emperor’s New Groove (2000).

 

Andreas has also convincingly portrayed dimensional heroes, including mighty, but naive Hercules (Hercules) and King Triton (The Little Mermaid), a regal but exasperated dad.  Also on the lovable side of the emotional spectrum, he has animated a troubled, adorable child (Lilo Pelekai in Lilo &Stitch), and a 197-year old warm and sweet and scary voodoo queen, Mama Odie (The Princess and the Frog).

Click on this image to read “Miscellaneous Lilo Stuff” from Andreas Dejas’ 04 January 2014 entry in his must-visit blog Deja View

He has proven himself able to handle zanies, such as Goofy and Roger Rabbit and Tigger.  And Andreas is a thoroughly modern Mickey Mouse expert, having animated the sacred rodent in The Prince and the Pauper, Runaway Brain, and Fantasia 2000.  (I visited Andreas at the Disney Studio in 1999 and watched him animate a scene of Mickey shaking hands with conductor James Levine, and I always regret not taking a snapshot of that moment.)

Andreas and I have been friends for a long time, I’m proud to say.  He is kind, humble, incisive and decisive in his thinking, witty, and one of the most generous people I know.  When my book Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men and the Art of Animation was published in 2001, Andreas threw a big celebratory party with dozens of animation industry guests at his beautiful Los Angeles home, an evening I will never forget.

A gift drawing, which I treasure, from Andreas to me on the publication of my 2001 book,
Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men and the Art of Animation.

On April 18, 2005, he came to New York on his own dime to enthrall my NYU Tisch students by discussing, and showing, drawings from his various projects.

For the recent exhibition Wish Upon a Star: The Art of Pinocchio at the Walt Disney Family Museum, Andreas loaned a large and precious number of rare original sequential drawings by the film’s great animators (e.g., Tytla, Moore, Babbitt, Thomas, Johnston, Larson, Kahl, Ferguson, Lounsbery, Kimball, among others) from his legendary personal collection, a gesture of friendship that made the exhibit sing with authenticity.

Wish Upon a Star: The Art of Pinocchio exhibition’s opening night, May 17, 2016: WDFM Executive Director Kirsten Komoroske, Board of Directors President, and son-in-law of Walt Disney, Ron Miller, guest curator John Canemaker, and Andreas Deja.

Andreas is a born teacher with a deep knowledge of the history of the art that he practices so well.  His lectures around the world inform and inspire.

This 1999 caricature of Andreas, by Clay Kaytis, puns a dairy ad slogan to highlight his admiration for the work of Milt Kahl, one of Disney’s legendary Nine Old Men.

Last year he wrote and published The Nine Old Men (CRC Press, a Focal Press Book), a tribute to the legacy he inherited from his personal mentors Eric Larson and Milt Kahl. It is, hopefully, the first of many books on lessons, techniques and inspirations he’s garnered during an amazing career.

 

 

 

Since leaving the Disney studio, Andreas has been working on his own independent production: Mushka “a story of love and sacrifice set in Russia” starring a little girl and her tiger.  Original art from this eagerly-anticipated film, among other treasures from Andrea Deja’s distinguished career, including his wire sculptures of characters and animals, will be showcased at the Walt Disney Family Museum, located in the Presidio in San Francisco from March 23 through October 4, 2017.

For his many fans around the world, it is an event not to be missed!  Click here for more information.

All Disney Images are ©Disney and are shown here for educational and inspirational purposes only.

An Evening with Suzan Pitt

This caricature of Suzan Pitt accompanied my 1979 FUNNYWORLD profile of her, linked below.

Last night, a full house at MoMA greeted renowned independent experimental filmmaker/animator Suzan Pitt. An Evening with Suzan Pitt was part of MoMa’s Modern Mondays series, as well as a major event of To Save and Project: The 14th MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation.

The selected screening included Pitt’s dazzling, hand-drawn-and-painted masterworks Crocus (1971), Asparagus (1979), and Joy Street (1995), which she rightfully claimed as “major works of mine.” She also screened two recent films – Visitation (2011) and Pinball (2013); all five films have recently been beautifully restored by the Academy Film Archive.

The films’ sensuality, the intriguing explorations of sex, joy and depression, the detailed painterly visions alternately nightmarish and sinister, exuberant and manic, bowled over the audience, who clearly savored the opportunity to see these films projected on a theater screen.

Post-screening, Suzan received a standing ovation from both young people new to her work, and members of the New York film community long familiar with it. “I can count on one hand that happening in my years at MoMA,” MoMA film curator/programmer Josh Siegel said, “the last time was for Jeanne Moreau.” Pitt, now 73, then discussed her work with articulate passion, in conversation with Siegel.

For those who were not fortunate enough to attend the evening, she also discusses her work and techniques in this informative 2006 documentary, Persistence of Vision, by Blue Kraning and Laura Kraning:

Among the audience were video maker and veteran media arts curator Kathy Brew, and a number of Pitt’s contemporaries among the New York independent animation filmmakers who began making personal shorts in the 1970s and 80s, including George Griffin, Lisa Crafts, and myself.

Fashion designer Patricia Field, left, and Suzan Pitt, each wearing one of Pitt’s hand-painted silk coats.

Also attending was Patricia Field, legendary fashion designer who sells made-to order clothing and accessories created by artists, including gorgeous one-of-a-kind hand-painted coats by Suzan Pitt. She calls them “animation walk-abouts.” Both Pitt and Field wore them last night and they are terrific. Click here for more information.

I first encountered Suzan’s work at a screening in the 1970s at the Whitney Museum. I wrote about her and her early films, including Asparagus, in Michael Barrier’s Funnyworld magazine #21 (Fall 1979). You can read the article here.

A Postscript to My Day at Yale:

I had a wonderful day on March 3, speaking at Yale University and meeting with graduate and undergrad students.  My host was artist Johannes DeYoung, Senior Critic and Director of the impressive Yale Digital Media Center for the Arts.

Johannes’ widely exhibited work encompasses experimental computer animation, moving image and printed matter. Ego Loser, a fascinating 2015 multi-layered project, is seen in an informative documentary with the artist discussing his processes, conducted by Gorki’s Granddaughter, a documentary art project team who visit studios and talk to artists.

This was not my first visit to Yale. Nearly forty years ago, I was a Guest Fellow for a couple of semesters teaching History of Animation.  And once, also during the 1980s, my friend Donald Crafton, the esteemed animation historian, author and founding director of the Yale Film Study Center, invited me to show my films.  I recall that during the screening, Don and I went for beers at famed Mory’s Temple Bar, and had such a good time, we nearly forgot to return to the theatre!

So it was nostalgic to be back last week.  After my lecture on The Lost Notebook: Herman Schultheis and the Secrets of Walt Disney’s Movie Magic, I met with five grad and undergrad students who are each working on fascinating projects utilizing film, painting, graphics, performance, and computers in various combinations and immersive ways.  Hasable Kidanu, Megan Brink, Sally Weiner, Sherril Wang, and Christie DeNizio – I thank you for the stimulating conversation, and I thoroughly enjoyed tossing ideas around with you.  Thank you, Johannes DeYoung, for the opportunity.