Dear Basketball Scores Big
at Tribeca Film Festival

This past weekend I was delighted to attend the sold-out premiere of Dear Basketball at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival.  The short film is directed by master animator Glen Keane, based on sports legend Kobe Bryant’s retirement poem about the game he loves, and played brilliantly, for twenty years.

Kobe Bryant, Glen Keane and John Williams

Narrated by Bryant, with a subdued yet majestic music score by five-time Oscar-winning composer John Williams, this deeply personal film is six minutes of captivating, whirling, non-stop motion and emotion. To put it in the vernacular: Dear Basketball is a power dunk by three super players.

The hand-drawn film smoothly alternates between the child Kobe dreaming of playing for the Los Angeles Lakers, his achievement of that goal as an adult, and the inevitable process of moving on to a new life challenge.  Sounds like a lot to pack into a short, but Keane’s elegant production combines clarity and lyricism.

Significant moments in Kobe’s life morph from a boy’s point-of-view shooting hoops in his bedroom with a “ball” of tube socks, and practicing “foot mechanics” by setting up chairs as obstacles, to the sports giant he became during a career of glorious triumphs and physical pain.

The film opens with a scoreboard countdown, a roaring crowd and we, the audience, running on the court with Kobe.  Tearing through the competition toward the basket, we soar with the ball through the hoop, its netting an abstract splash dissolving dreamlike into a transition of time and space.

There is an experimental expressive freedom in Keane’s direction and animation, which he rarely had the opportunity to venture into as a Disney animator.   The films immersive quality is achieved primarily through sequential drawings on single sheets of paper.

You are always aware that the visuals are drawings — some beautifully rendered with detail and fully animated, even to the sweat trickling down Kobe’s brow;  some drawings are wild scribbles, lines that coalesce into, and out of, recognizable shapes.  The action and “camera” point-of-view takes place within drawings of moving backgrounds that quickly, freely, fluidly change locale and time periods, as storyteller Keane desires.

As with other great animated cartoons, no matter the style, audiences become deeply involved with the story through the characters.  Keane mastered “illusion of life” animation’s power and charm at Disney, and brings it with joy to his free-form storytelling here.

Expressive sequential graphite-penciled story sketches are essential to Keane’s creative process; for example, his dramatically expressive thumbnail storyboards for The Rescuers Down Under and Pocahontas, among other films.  Rough story and animation drawings are rarely seen in their nascent form in his Disney oeuvre, but their raw vitality pulses in this film.   Dear Basketball is a “pencil test” writ large and beautiful, reminiscent of John and Faith Hubley’s experimental films.

In an on-stage interview conducted by Michael Strahan on Sunday, April 23, Bryant and Keane talked about their collaboration on the project. ( A video of the complete Tribeca Talk conversation can be seen at Cartoon Brew.)

Bryant said he insisted that animation of his poem be hand-drawn, “not CG,” and “in one with the game;” that is, a tactile match for his tangible sense of touch and the smell, sound and feel of “a basketball in the game.”  He also noted certain abstract things can be best expressed through animation, such as “emotion, conscious and sub-conscious thought, ideas.”

“A drawing with a pencil is an expression of your soul,” Keane said. “A seismograph of your soul. You put a line down – it’s a feeling and emotion.”

Both men discussed recent profound changes in their lives and how they dealt with it:  Kobe leaving basketball as one of the best athletes in NBA history; Glen leaving the Disney Studio after an illustrious 38 years as one of its greatest animators. (Ariel in The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Pocahontas, the Beast in Beauty and the Beast, and Tarzan.)

Bryant formed Kobe Inc. a multi-media content creation company to help athletes learn the process of excellence and maximizing potential.  He asked of himself and the Tribeca audience, “What can you control” in seeking your goals.  Cited as an “inspiration” was his friend Michael Jackson, who advised Bryant, when he was with the Lakers, to up his game by seriously “studying the game,” as deeply as Jackson studied entertainers he admired; for example, Jackson pored over sheet music and recordings of The Beatles, and analyzed the dancing of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire.

In addition to persistence, Bryant noted that his career was “built piece by piece,” not by focusing on the top of a personal Mount Everest he wanted to reach, but instead on “each step, one foot after the other, and perfecting those steps” to reach the mountaintop.

Members of the Dear Basketball creative team at the 2017 Annie Awards in Los Angeles. From left, producer Gennie Rim, Kobe Bryant, Glen Keane, animation assistant Aidan Terry and designer/compositor Scott Uyeshima.

When Glen Keane left Disney, he no longer had an army of “clean-up” or ink and paint artists to transform his drawings into a uniform Disney style.  Now, the independent Glen Keane Productions has a small crew in Hollywood helping the master animator/storyboard artist retain the aliveness of his personal “signature” on the screen.

“This Kobe project certainly has me feeling like a new animation student trying to figure out what end is up,” Keane wrote to me last summer.  “I told Kobe that he has the worst basketball player on earth animating him. But fortunately, observation and imagination are not limited by my athleticism.”

The crew on the nine-month production of Dear Basketball includes producer Gennie Rim; production designer Max Keane; animators Minkyu Lee and Bolhem Bouchiba; effects animator Phillip Vigil; and animation assistant Aidan Terry.

On a personal note, Glen Keane, master animator, story artist and major mensch of great integrity, honor, and humility, has been a friend for many years.  I first got to know him as an essential, articulate and witty interviewee for my periodical articles and my 2001 book on Disney’s Nine Old Men.  We corresponded via email for years.

When we were both honored with the Winsor McCay Award at the 2007 Annie Awards ceremony, I boldly asked Glen if he might sign and send a sketch of the Beast to me.

 

 

 

In 2013, a splendid drawing arrived and, as you can see, it was a treasure worth waiting for:

A 2013 drawing of The Beast by Glen Keane for John Canemaker. Click to enlarge.

In 2015, Glen was in New York screening Duet at the Museum of Modern Art, and he generously found time to visit NYU Tisch, meet our animation students, and to give a spellbinding  lecture (with spontaneous drawings).

Last June, Gennie Rim, Glen’s producer on Duet and other projects, contacted me, seeking “any stand-out students or alumni” for a new 2-D project.  I saw it as an opportunity to reciprocate Glen’s generosity, and suggested young Aidan Terry, a brilliant 2016 graduate and mainstay of our NYU Tisch School of the Arts/Kanbar Film and Television’s animation program. Equally adept at hand-drawn character animation and the digital realm (including VR), Aidan joined Glen’s team last summer on Dear Basketball.

Aidan Terry at work on Dear Basketball.

“I am already impressed with this young man,” Glen wrote to me in July.

We at NYU are very proud of Aidan!

 

 

 

A Tale of Two Gerties

Actress Gertrude Lawrence and Walt Disney, 1942. Click image to enlarge.

On Saturday, February 7, 1942, Walt Disney attended a performance of the hit Broadway musical Lady in the Dark at the Alvin Theatre, now the Neil Simon Theatre, on West 52nd Street, and went backstage to meet the show’s radiant star, Gertrude Lawrence.

As I noted in my earlier post on The Square World, Disney was facing a difficult period in his career.  The attack on Pearl Harbor exactly two months earlier had plunged America into the Second World War and deprived Disney of much-needed revenues from the European and Asian markets.  His fifth animated feature, the long-delayed Bambi, had been in pre-production since 1937, at a cost of nearly $2 million, and would not be released until August of 1942.

I asked Michael Barrier, esteemed animation historian and Disney biographer (The Animated Man), why Walt was in New York at that time.  “I think the principal reason for Walt’s visit to the East that month,” he replied, “was government business in Washington.”  Barrier also noted

[My records] show him arriving in New York from Washington on Thursday, February 5 [1942], and leaving New York for L.A. with a stopover in Kansas City on Wednesday, February 11.  He seems to have tacked on visits to New York on a number of occasions when he visited D.C. — no doubt to confer with RKO [his film distributor] people and Kay Kamen [Disney’s merchandising executive], among others . . .

Disney had already cut back significantly on studio staff in early 1941, after the initial box-office disappointments of Pinocchio and Fantasia. Now facing an even greater financial crisis, he wasted no time in seeking war-related projects. Indeed, during the years 1942-1945, the Disney studio would be engaged extensively in making training and propaganda films for the Armed Forces and the home front, and this stream of government work was essential to the studio’s survival.

On this particular day, then, Walt must have looked forward to escaping his mounting worries for a couple of hours with Lady in the Dark, which had been playing to turn-away business for more than a year.

Lady in the Dark made the cover of TIME Magazine on Feb. 3, 1941. Photo: Richard Tucker

Lady in the Dark opened on Broadway January 23, 1941, and Broadway, frankly, had never seen anything like it — a lavish, innovative musical play about psychoanalysis, written and directed by Moss Hart, with music by Kurt Weill and lyrics by Ira Gershwin, and starring the legendary Gertrude Lawrence.

It was an early concept musical, which abandoned the then-standard Broadway format of chorus lines, love ballads and comic turns.  Instead, the narrative integrated a series of dazzling musical “dream” tableaux, each of which revealed a different aspect of the heroine’s psychological state.  In abandoning a linear plot for musical vignettes connected by a theme, Lady in the Dark anticipated what would be realized more fully and brilliantly three decades later in the Hal Prince/Stephen Sondheim musicals Company (1970) and Follies (1971).

Lady in the Dark, with a company of 101, massive sets and elaborate costumes, has never been fully revived on Broadway.  However, in a 1981 PBS television special, the late Lynn Redgrave accurately recreated Ms. Lawrence’s show-stopping number, “The Saga of Jenny,” with the original staging, and with Danny Kaye, who played The Ringmaster in the 1941 production.

Caricature by Al Frueh of Gertrude Lawrence and Lady in the Dark cast members Victor Mature and Danny Kaye.

Lady in the Dark opened to superlative reviews.  It was the “greatest triumph” of Lawrence’s career, writes Bruce D. McClung, author of a marvelously detailed 2007 book about the show, Lady in the Dark: Biography of a Musical.   The New York Herald Tribune called Lawrence “the greatest feminine performer in the theatre.”  The New York Times proclaimed her a “goddess.”  Another critic hailed her performance as “incredible in its virtuosity.”

A huge hit, the musical often played to standing room only, sometimes 100 standees for each performance.  After a summer hiatus (most Broadway shows closed for the summer in those pre-air conditioned days), Lady in the Dark closed on May 30, 1942 after a run of fifty-eight nonconsecutive weeks.

Ms. Lawrence then headlined the show on an eight-city tour, which returned to Broadway for a limited engagement (February thru May 1943), then toured the west coast, finally closing in Los Angeles in July 1943, racking up a grand total of 777 performances.

Gertrude Lawrence, 1934, in the London play Nymph Errant.

Gertrude Lawrence (1898-1952), British actress and musical comedy performer, was a legendary star of the West End and Broadway.  She is little known today, but earlier generations, who saw her on stage, never forgot her.  Though not a conventional beauty, Lawrence possessed, according to her biographer Sheridan Morley, “a radiance which could hold theatre audiences spellbound.”

1930 Ralph Barton caricature of Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence in Private Lives.

Her professional relationship with longtime friend Noel Coward, the great playwright/actor, was often tempestuous.  But he wrote starring roles for her and himself in Private Lives and Tonight at 8:30.

1936 Al Frueh caricature of Noel and Gertie in Tonight at 8:30.

“Sometimes, in Private Lives,” Coward wrote of his co-star “Gertie,” “I would look at her across the stage and she would simply take my breath away.”

Two photographs taken of Walt meeting Gertie — celebrity to celebrity — are offered here for the first time.  In the image at the top of this page, Lawrence is in full stage make-up and dressed in a dark brocaded wrapper.  She holds a small eye make-up brush in her right hand and has looped her other hand through Disney’s arm, drawing herself close to him.  She smiles warmly, looking up at him, and Walt is literally open-mouthed at his proximity to this glamorous actress.

Click image to enlarge.

In the photo directly above, Gertie and Walt toast each other.  She, grinning widely, still clutching her make-up brush, hoists an empty water glass; he, a bit more composed, holds a glass of bubble-less “champagne” (probably water), gazes directly into Gertie’s eyes and strikes a dashing Noel Coward-ish pose.

In the middle of that photo, grinning joyfully, is a 17-year old self-taught, would-be animator named Robert N. Brotherton (1925 – 1989).  Bob loved Disney films, and it was obviously a great thrill to be so close to his idol, Walt Disney.  Brotherton’s father, manager of the Alvin’s box office, arranged for his son to meet Walt.

Bob Brotherton was a sweet, generous man with an innate sense of history and a love for the art of animation.  It was Bob who gave me the two original prints of the above photos.  And it is appropriate that he shared a photo frame with Walt Disney, since Bob Brotherton also made a very significant contribution, albeit indirectly, to animation history.

Five years after this photo with Disney and Ms. Lawrence was taken, Bob had a fateful encounter with another star performer named Gertie, namely pioneering animator Winsor McCay’s celebrated 1914 animated cartoon dinosaur.  For it was Bob who, in 1947, rescued the original 35mm negatives and prints of the films of Winsor McCay, which otherwise would have been lost forever.   Not only did he save McCay’s Gertie film, and others, from destruction and oblivion, he also rescued and preserved a goodly number of McCay’s original Gertie animation drawings.

This iconic image of Winsor McCay and Gertie the Dinosaur was one of McCay’s original production drawings, saved by Bob Brotherton. Click image to enlarge.

I wrote briefly about Bob and his heroic salvaging efforts in my 1987 biography, Winsor McCay – His Life and Art.  But he has never received enough recognition for his extraordinary salvaging and protection of the film legacy of Winsor McCay.  Practically nothing has been written about the life of this man who, in his own way, had the passion for film preservation and tenacity of Henri Langlois.

I will rectify that oversight soon, in a future blog posting of John Canemaker’s Animated Eye.

 

It’s THE SQUARE WORLD, After All !

 

A story sketch for The Square World

In 1944, the Walt Disney Studio was struggling to survive.  World War II, with no end in sight, cut off essential income from Disney’s European film markets.

Substantial debt lingered from lavishly produced, pre-war box office failures, Pinocchio and Fantasia (both released in 1940), the construction of an expensive new studio in Burbank, and a 1941 labor strike.  The huge financial problems of Walt Disney and his business partner and brother, Roy, necessitated that they produce, almost exclusively, Armed Forces training films and home front propaganda shorts for the duration of the war.

During this difficult period, Walt also optimistically planned numerous post-war film productions.  To whet the public’s appetite for his future filmic dreams, he previewed them in, of all places, a children’s book titled Walt Disney’s Surprise Package, published by Simon & Schuster in July 1944.

Surprise Package is a historical document of sorts — a fascinating glimpse into the Disney Studio’s creative process at a crucial time in its history.  Uncle Remus Stories; Happy Valley (later titled Fun and Fancy Free); The Wind in the Willows (later The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad; Alice in Wonderland; Peter Pan, were priorities among the hoped-for future projects, and all eventually reached movie screens in 1946, 1947, 1949, 1951 and 1953, respectively.

Adapting classic stories, such as above, for a children’s book was the formidable and thankless task of H. Marion Palmer, wife of Ted (Dr. Seuss) Geisel. The text is predictably bland and succinct.

Much more interesting is Surprise Package’s  illustrations.  They show designs for now-familiar characters, settings and actions in their earliest conceptual stages of development, far removed from their finalized appearance in films.

The original concept for Lady

For example, the dog story titled “Lady,” which was finally produced in 1955 as Lady and the Tramp.  In Surprise Package, she appears in appealing sketches, perhaps by J. P. Miller (all the artists are unidentified), as a generic pooch  —   a mottled Springer Spaniel, not the honey-colored, glam version seen on the screen.  Though there are two mischievous Siamese cats, she is a Lady without her Tramp, the charming mutt with whom, eleven years later, she shared main-title billing and a spaghetti dinner.

Equally fascinating in Surprise Package are the illustrated stories that the studio never produced, including three by Hans Christian Andersen, for a feature comprising a collection of tales explored in sketches as early as 1937: The Little Fir Tree; The Emperor’s New Clothes; and seventeen pages devoted to Through the Picture Frame, adapted from Ole Lukoie.

Through the Picture Frame

The latter story’s free-form pastel drawings, filled with gentle, inventive whimsy, are by Bianca Majolie, who, in 1935, was the first woman story artist Disney hired.  In a 1987 correspondence with me, Ms. Majolie said she drew the illustrations, plus a couple more included in a September 1944 book, also titled Through the Picture Frame, one of the first titles in the Walt Disney Little Library series.

The most unusual entry in Surprise Package is The Square World, an original story by Disney Studio’s star writer/artists at the time: the prolific Joe Grant and Richard (Dick) Huemer, who produced Fantasia and developed Dumbo.  During the war, the team wrote/produced numerous film stories for the home front, such as the Oscar-winning Der Fuehrer’s Face (1943).  See my 2010 book, Two Guys Named Joe, for more about the extraordinary life and careers of Joe Grant.

The Square World was Grant/Huemer’s protest against totalitarianism, racism, and loss of personal freedom.  In the text, adapted by Palmer from Huemer’s original pun-filled rhymes, the allegory concerns people in the land of What’s-It’s Name (“Wotzitsname” in Huemer’s version), who, like everyone, have many shapes.

One of the original storyboards for The Square World – click to view

 

Mighty-Highty-Tighty (“Hi-Mucki-Muck”), the megalomaniacal ruler, is squat and square.  He declares, “I do not like so many shapes. My shape is the right shape!”  His soldiers set forth to remake the entire world into square shapes, including people, buildings, cars, trees, even chickens and their eggs. When babies continue to be born in a diversity of shapes, Mighty-Highty-Tighty commits suicide.

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

Six color drawings on two pages accompanying the story, drawn for Surprise Package by Joe Grant, are in a modernist stylization unusual for Disney. They resemble European poster graphics, which United Productions of America (UPA) later adopted for their short cartoon films, such as Gerald McBoing Boing (1951).

Children could relate to the small, soft and round creatures of the story put upon by aggressive, sharp-cornered bullies.  But the real target of the two writer/artists were adults who’d understand the story is, in Richard Huemer’s words, “bitterly satirizing totalitarianism, á la Hitler or Mussolini, or any other aspiring dictator.”

Why was the film not produced?  “It was in the waning days of the war that the storyboards were ready for presentation to Walt for okay to go ahead on production,”Huemer explained in a Foreword to a 16-page rhyme he wrote “based loosely” on the cartoon story.

Walt was not there. Instead (which was most unusual) Roy Disney, who very seldom had any connection with the creative mechanics of the studio, was in charge. After the storyboards had been read and explained to the group, Roy lost no time in stating that we ought not to make this picture. Not that it lacked merit.  Far from it.  But that now, that the end of hostilities was definitely in sight (at least in Europe) we perhaps ought to soft-pedal any slaps at our erstwhile enemy. We are going to have to do business with whatever government takes over in Germany, so we oughtn’t create any  further ill will,” said he.  And that was that, and an opinion that was reasonable enough.

The boards were put away . . .

Another reason why The Square World disappeared was offered by Joe Grant.  Interviewed by animation historian Michael Barrier on October 14, 1988, when asked who did the Surprise Package drawings, Grant said:

Those are my drawings. I have quite a few of them that I did that weren’t published. I wish we had made that picture. I told you I have the letters from the legal department that they thought it was too communistic.

The prescient Mr. Grant and Mr. Huemer

Thanks to Jim Hollifield, Richard Huemer, Jr., Didier Ghez, Michael Barrier.

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

 

Floyd Norman at NYU

 

On a tour of the Animation area at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts/Kanbar Department of Film and Television, on March 31, 2017, Floyd Norman poses in an empty classroom as a “stern ol’ professor”!

Last night at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, Disney Legend Floyd Norman, age 81, the first African-American animator at the Walt Disney Studio, and his wife Adrienne, screened their wonderful 2016 documentary, Floyd Norman: An Animated Life.  Afterward, they and the film’s co-directors, Michael Fiore and Erik Sharkey, participated in a Q&A that I moderated.

Floyd Norman, circa 1958, working on Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (1959).

Norman’s extensive career in animation began in 1956 at Disney, where he worked on classic features, such as Sleeping Beauty, The Sword and the Stone, Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book —  sometimes as an animator or layout or story artist, and sometimes in Disney Publishing as a book illustrator and comic strip writer.  During his sixty-plus years in the animation industry, he has also worked at Hanna-Barbera, (Josie and the Pussycats, Scooby-Doo, and The Smurfs, among other series) and Pixar (Toy Story 2).  In the mid-1960s, he was co-owner of his own animation studio, Vignette Films, focusing on educational shorts about Black history.

The 94-minute film is, by turns, funny, deeply moving and inspirational, and candid about Norman’s personal life, and his professional encounters with racism and, especially, ageism.

Floyd is a prolific blogger (MrFun’s Journal), whose hilarious gag-filled illustrated books on animation industry politics and business policies –available on Amazon.com – not only bite the hand that feeds him, but chomps it off at the shoulder.

Floyd and Adrienne, a gifted Disney publications artist in her own right, held forth for a Q&A that lasted nearly an hour.  Both are articulate raconteurs, and the audience of students and faculty were held by their charm, candor and ready humor.  They spoke truthfully about their lives, and the audience responded with respectful attention and many questions.

The Normans obviously love what they do.  Adrienne and Floyd’s positive, upbeat attitude was catnip to students starting on the road of their own careers in film.

The gist of their message can be found in this passage from one of Floyd’s blog posts:

Here’s the good news. Beginnings don’t have to end. If you’re smart, resilient and resourceful you can create your own beginnings. Reinvent yourself. Redesign yourself and screw the corporation you worked for. Walk away and move forward on your own. If you’ve been booted out take this as a cue to get started. Begin a new task.

Begin a new journey. Begin!

Floyd and Adrienne Norman tour the NYU Tisch/Kanbar Animation program with Executive Director/Professor John Canemaker.