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.
Herman Schultheis, a technician at the Disney Studio from 1938 to 1941, worked in the Process Lab, the department that produced the optical effects of the early Disney animated features. An engineer by training and an avid photographer, Schultheis created several detailed illustrated notebooks for his personal use, which were not discovered until more than 30 years after his death in 1955, and are now preserved at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco.
Thursday, March 2 Yale University Digital Media Center for the Arts 149 York Street, Room 104 New Haven, Connecticut
10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
For further information, contact
Yale Digital Media Center for the Arts, firstname.lastname@example.org, 203-432-2883
As a teacher, it is always gratifying when former students achieve success. In the past few weeks, I’ve had the great pleasure of seeing not one, but three former NYU Tisch animation students numbered among this year’s Academy Award nominees, and a fourth the subject of a major career profile article in a national magazine. Congratulations to all!
Nominated for an Oscar this year is Borrowed Time, a highly emotional, visually stunning and brilliantly directed seven-minute short film about loss and guilt, directed, written and animated by Andrew Coats, NYU Tisch class of 2004, and Lou Hamou-Lhadj, NYU Tisch class of 2008.
Andrew and Lou met as film students at New York University Tisch school of the Arts Kanbar Department of Film and Television, where both gravitated toward the Animation program. Their amazing draftsmanship and technical skills duly impressed me and my colleagues on the animation teaching staff. Full of energy, Lou and Andrew were interested in learning as much as possible about all aspects of filmmaking.
Even a decade ago, they wanted to make “something that contested the notion of animation being a genre and one specifically for children,” Lou said recently. “We really wanted to make something that was a little more adult in the thematic choice and show that animation could be a medium to tell any sort of story.”
Soon, their obvious talents caught the attention of big studios. Pixar offered Lou a job after he completed an internship there, which he bravely refused in order to complete his NYU degree. The company kept its doors open for him, and he has since worked on Wall-E, Brave, Toy Story 3, and The Good Dinosaur.
Andrew found work immediately after graduation from NYU Tisch at Blue Sky Studios animating on Horton Hears a Who, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, and as a Character Lead on Rio. Joining Pixar in 2010, he worked on Cars 2, Brave, Inside Out, and The Good Dinosaur, among other films.
Borrowed Time was made possible by Pixar’s Co-op Program, part of the company’s internal Pixar University professional development program for employees. Lou and Andrew applied and were allowed to use, on their own time, the Pixar pipeline at work. The film took them over five years to make. Upon release, it immediately began racking up more than a score of awards at international film festivals, and now, there is the possibility of an Oscar.
The possibility of winning an Academy Award this year is there, too, for Brad Schiff, NYU Tisch class of 1995. Brad, an internationally-recognized master of stop motion animation, is nominated for an Oscar, along with three others, for Best Achievement in Visual Effects for his work on Laika Studio’s Kubo and the Two Strings, which is also nominated for Best Animated Feature.
https://youtu.be/YMmrKORgNFc Kubo is Brad’s first nomination, though he was the Animation Supervisor on the Oscar-nominated Laika features The Boxtrolls and ParaNorman. His extraordinary animation skills can also be seen in the stop motion features The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Corpse Bride, and Coraline.
Brad’s special gifts were apparent back in the early 1990s when he was a lively, good humored, slightly anarchic NYU student. I recall him skateboarding down the hallways of NYU’s 8th floor Animation area (a no-no), and was surprised when I saw the rushes for his thesis film, Wink Thorn in No More Mr. Niceguy, a hilarious parody of violent, mindless Schwarzenegger action flicks, to learn that he used a firecracker to blow a puppet’s head off and real fire to melt another character (two big no-no’s)!
Brad Schiff’s forte has always been Stop Motion character animation, an art form that he holds a lifelong commitment to and passion for. “I am solely a stop-motion guy,” he told Variety recently. “I have no other skills other than sculpting and playing with dolls.”
His stand-out work as a student was honed and expanded on professional jobs — television series, such as, MTV’s Celebrity Deathmatch; The PJ’s; and Gary and Mike (Will Vinton Studios), the latter garnering him a 2001 Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Animation. He also directed and animated television commercials for the NFL, Nintendo Gameboy, and Samsung, among other sponsors. Then came the full-length features.
All these early experiences led Brad to become a young master and major participant in the current renaissance of stop motion feature-length animation. In his career, he has helped fuse animation’s oldest technique with the newest technologies, thus advancing the art form to unprecedented levels of quality.
The New Yorker magazine of February 6, 2017 features a mid-career article about the brilliant and prolific children’s book author/illustrator Mo Willems, NYU Tisch class of 1990, who inherits the mantle of Dr. Seuss and Maurice Sendak.
Mo has published more than 50 witty and charming children’s books with recurring characters (including Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus; Knuffle Bunny; the Elephant and Piggie series). His stories artfully mingle life lessons with humor, and are beloved by millions of children worldwide.
More than 25 of them are New York Times bestsellers, and he is the recipient of three Caldecott Honors, two Geisel Medals, five Geisel Honors, and an inaugural spot in the Picture Book Hall of Fame. The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. commissioned him to write two musicals based on his books, Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Musical and Elephant & Piggie’s We Are In a Play!
Last spring, the New-York Historical Society presented The Art and Whimsy of Mo Willems, a retrospective exhibition of original art, concepts and finished drawings organized by the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art.
Previous to Mo’s publishing career, he won six Emmy Awards for his writing on PBS’s Sesame Street, created the Cartoon Network’s Sheep in the Big City, and was the head writer for Codename: Kids Next Door.
And before that, Mo Willems was an unforgettable presence in the NYU Animation area. A thin beanpole with a mop of hair, full of fun, indefatigable, spirited, with an endless supply of drawings of gags and ideas for films.
The Man Who Yelled (1990), one of Mo’s undergraduate films, shows his affection for UPA “cartoon modern” designs and Woody Allen commentaries. The short can be taken as a mordantly funny comment on the commercial exploitation of an unusual talent, perhaps an homage to Chuck Jones’ One Froggy Evening (1955); but, in the final voice-over, it is also a clever send-up of people who over-analyze films, as in the critique you have just read:
NYU and its teachers are proud of their former students who, like Mo, Brad, Andrew and Lou, have gone on to notable accomplishments in their various careers in the arts.
It is a pleasure and privilege to have known them.
For what it’s worth, my personal philosophy regarding teaching is the same as that of Jules Engel (1909-2003), founding director of Cal Arts’ Experimental Animation Program:
It’s not what teachers give to a student; it’s what they don’t take away.
Francis Picabia: Our Heads are Round so Our Thoughts Can Change Direction, now at the MoMA through March 19, is one of the most exhilarating, energetic, and fun exhibitions in town.
Surprise awaits in every room of this comprehensive (over 200 works), elegant survey of Francis Picabia (1879-1953), the elusive French artist who is less well-known than other moderns because of his restless, relentless exploration of a wide diversity of styles, platforms and techniques. “If you want to have clean ideas,” he once wrote, “change them as often as your shirt.”
Impressionism; Pseudo-Classicism; Cubism; Fauvism; Dada; Figuration; Surrealism; Collage; Appropriation; Photo-Realism. Picabia’s been there, done all that.
He was also a poet, publisher, film performer, set designer, and scenarist. Entr’acte, the exuberantly absurd 1924 cinema classic he wrote and appears in (heavy-set man on the right bouncing in slow motion at the beginning), is showcased within the exhibition.
Among the film’s many multiple camera tricks (slow-mo, double exposures) is a tiny bit of stop-motion animation of a cannon. Picabia said the film “respects nothing except the right to roar with laughter.”
Most of his art holds a merry Till Eulenspiegel skepticism, a cynicism that questions what is art and it’s purpose, while manipulating high/low expectations.
In his personal life, he even turned the starving artist trope on its head. Born wealthy, he stayed that way. Befitting his catch-me-if-you-can, shape-shifting personality, he indulged in a love for luxury motorcars, and interchangeable wives and mistresses.
Picabia’s nose-thumbing started, as does this exhibition, with his early Impressionist landscapes inspired not en plein air, but by postcards! One painting caught my animator’s eye with its cartoon-ish organic shapes, unnatural colors, and a mysterious anthropomorphism in the shrubbery.
I can’t help having an animator’s sensibility, a condition once described by Pixar’s Andrew Stanton thusly: “I can’t remember not thinking that my bike was cold in the rain, that fish are lonely in their bowl, that leaves are frightened of heights as they fall.” (The New Yorker, Oct. 17, 2011.)
In addition to perceiving anthropomorphism, the animation sensibility is seeing potential for motion and emotional expression in static art, in its staging and techniques.
For example, in another early period of the highly-changeable Picabia’s work, we leap with him into a cauldron of giant Cubist canvases roiling with serpentine motion, interlocking sensual shapes, and glowing neon colors.
In my imagination, they are an abstract, arse-over-teakettle Laocoön.
They contrast with a later blue-hued, contemplative, obviously representational human in the cubist-informed painting, Figure Triste (Sad Visage).
Basic animation principles –caricature, metamorphosis and exaggeration — are in a series of so-called mechanomorph drawings of invented machines.
Picabia’s close friend, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918), is the subject of one sketch that manages to be funny and poignant. Apollinaire, a passionate defender of Cubism and Surrealism (terms he originated), is portrayed as a stout container, affectionately labeled “irritable poète.” A second caption, Tu ne mourras pas tout entier (“You will never completely die.”), reveals this drawing to be an obituary portrait of Picabia’s friend.
Picabia’s lifelong love of music is expressed in a joyful, spare abstraction resembling animated, multi-colored musical staffs, titled Music is Like Painting. It triggers thoughts and sounds of a Harry Bertoia kinetic sound sculpture. This, in turn, reminds me of Bertoia’s friendship with abstract animation filmmaker Oskar Fischinger, which began in 1944, a few years after Fischinger’s disastrous experience working at the Disney Studio on Fantasia, to which he contributed numerous concept sketches for the Bach Toccata and Fugue section, ideas that were ignored or abandoned.
Picabia’s caricatures include a series of so-called Côte d’Azur Monster paintings savaging his fellow 1920s leisure class party revelers.
There is also the intriguing Transparence series, dreamlike layering of diverse images, seeing through and beyond the obvious, revealing an alternate view, like a camera cross-dissolve, double exposure, or (in traditional hand-drawn animation techniques) a cel overlay that allows a new depth to an image. Here, the angularity and simple lines of Picabia’s overlay image anticipates the spare modernism that would later exemplify UPA’s cartoon aesthetic.
Greeting visitors to this large, satisfying exhibition is a giant photo blow-up of the artist, riding a tiny cart in an ornate living room. There is a wild-child look on his happy face, challenging you to hop on and join him.
You’ll have the ride of your life.
Canio’s Books is a tiny treasure of a bookshop in Sag Harbor, Long Island. Housed within an old wooden building, it personifies the word “cozy” and has a time-tripping, Americana charm and warmth reminiscent of Norman Rockwell’s 1950 painting Shuffelton’s Barbershop, which depicts three rural elders ending their day by playing a violin, clarinet and cello in a barber’s back room.
Sometimes, Canio’s offers live music among the books rising like stalagmites from the floor and leaning from the crowded shelves. But mostly it is the bookstores’ seminars, workshops and public forums that support the East End community’s interest in literature, visual arts, and current events.
One cold evening last November, the great Jules Feiffer was at Canio’s for a book signing and a “talk.” Now in his late 80s, Feiffer recently published two brilliant graphic novels, Kill My Mother and Cousin Joseph. Click on the covers below to read my reviews in the East Hampton Star.
A Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist, author of more than 35 books for adults and children, plays (e.g, Little Murders), screenplays (e.g., Carnal Knowledge), an Oscar-winning animated short (Munro), Feiffer is perhaps most famous as a speaker of truth-to-power for over forty years in his weekly Village Voice comic strip.
As an audience of about thirty assembled on folding chairs, Feiffer sat quietly on a couch. Dressed in an oversized green shirt and brown corduroy trousers, bespectacled, bald, with a wisp of a white beard, he looked like a frail hatchling.
When he took to the podium on the postage-stamp stage, however, his innate energy and laser-keen intelligence came forth for a riveting demonstration of his art and political savvy. First, he showed drawings and discussed a work-in-progress, The Ghost Script, the final of a trilogy of graphic novels.
But soon he segued into the current event on everyone’s mind: Donald Trump’s stunning upset against Hillary Clinton for the presidency. Feiffer began by commenting that for years, “Republicans have wanted to kill the New Deal.” And now, he said ruefully, they have their best shot at it.
He acknowledged the fear and loathing by many on the left, and the confusion about how to react and what can be done. Then he read from a letter that he wrote to his three daughters on the night of the election to quell their fears and put events into a historical context. The letter is sharp, sober and tough. And inspiring. I asked his permission to publish it here in the hopes that it inspires you as well.
9 November 2016
None of this is new, it just feels new because we’ve suppressed our history.
Except, we know about the Indians, and how we slaughtered them, and broke treaties where we swore to protect them, and made Westerns glorifying marauding and murderous cavalry and ranchers. They were the good guys. Indians, whose land we stole out from under them, were the bad guys for resisting our theft.
And that still goes on, at this very moment, in Wyoming [Native American tribes supporting the Dakota pipeline dispute].
In the late 19th and early to mid-twentieth century, labor unions were denied the right to strike, or even organize. Strikes were broken up by police and National Guards, workers shot down or beaten bloody, and it was legal to do so.
Other workers, when they reacted with their own acts of violence, gave the government in the 1920s the excuse to seize foreign laborers and deport them, and their families by the thousands, intern others in concentration camps. There was no national debate on this.
Aliens, as we called them, were a threat to our sacred institutions, and good, hard working Americans had the right, the duty to defend ourselves against these outsiders, who were genetically inferior– science said so! — had smaller brains, were criminally inclined, carried communicable diseases that would infect and bring down the white race.
And then, all through the early 20th century, Negroes are lynched down South, and sometimes in the mid west. No one was brought to trial, and in the few cases that Klansmen were tried, they went free.
The vindictiveness and rage that brings us Trumpism is as old as the Constitution, even older.
But what makes us special as a people, and unique among nations, is that a minority, then a true constituency, and then thousands, and then millions put themselves on the line to fight for change. To encourage the dream that we were actually better than we often behaved, and miracle of miracles, slowly, with endless effort and countless defeats, we saw change.
And we, some of us, thought the fight was won, we had learned from our mistakes. Our history proved it.
But the truth, now and always, is that history has no learning curve, and old lessons, once learned are forgotten, or become twisted and rejected.
And so we must start from scratch, all over again. That’s the secret of America. We fight the same fights over and over and over again, without many of us knowing that today’s fight is a retread of previous fights going back decades, or centuries.
So Trump was elected President.