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!

 

 

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

 

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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

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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The Secrets of Disney’s Lost Notebook
at Yale University March 2

This primitive, hand-built multiplane camera setup was used to create three-dimensional visual effects in Fantasia (1940).

I will be appearing at Yale University on Thursday, March 2, 2017, with an illustrated talk about my book, The Lost Notebook: Herman Schultheis and the Secrets of Walt Disney’s Movie Magic. The talk is open to the general public, and will take a unique, behind-the-scenes look at how the eye-popping visual effects of Pinocchio, Fantasia and other classic films were achieved.

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, dmca@yale.edu, 203-432-2883

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