Archive for Pixar

A Brief, but Hopelessly Inaccurate, History of Animation

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on July 31, 2020 by dcairns

In FELIX THE NIHILIST (1921), the beloved cartoon cat flirted with terrorism.

America’s first cartoon star, Felix the Cat, was originally a real cat, but showman Aubrey Visser found it impractical to display a live cat in hundreds of movie theaters at once, so he resorted to showing drawings. Audiences didn’t respond enthusiastically to a single crudely-rendered drawing of a cat being held in front of them for five minutes straight, so he experimented with displaying six or seven such drawings in succession. This still didn’t enthrall the populace, so he added more and more… by the time he was rapidly shuffling sixteen drawings a second, he had simultaneously discovered animation and repetitive strain injury, and a new medium was born.

The popular animated flapper Betty Boop was the creation of actor and political activist John Wilkes Boop, who based the characterization on his mother, also a popular animated flapper.

With the first cartoon to feature dialogue and sound, Walt Disney was all set to score a popular hit, except he had unexpected trouble with the Hays Office over the title, Steamboat Penis. Disney offered up a variety of alternatives: Steamboat Cock, Steamboat Dong, Steamboat Trouser Snake, finally settling on the more acceptable Steamboat Dick John Thomas Percy Johnson. The final touch which ensured his success was a radical redesign of the main character:

With his instantly recognizable characters such as Michael and Winifred Mouse, Donald  Amberson Duck, and George “Goofy” Babbage, Disney became the king of cartoons, eventually founding his very own kingdom in the form of an amusement park, Waltworld or something. But it wasn’t enough to fill the stagnant emptiness corroding his innards, and so he ordered his poorly-paid minions to create America’s first animated feature film, originally entitled SO WHITE AND THE SABINE DWARFS. Endless story conferences eventually ironed out the plot, which originally had the Aryan princess heroine kidnap a group of dwarfs who eventually contracted Stockholm Syndrome and refused to leave her. In one intermediate version they contracted Stockhausen Syndrome, causing an addiction to musique-concrète, and in another the affliction was Stockard Channing Syndrome, named for the as-yet-unborn Tony award winner.

Disney’s gamble paid off, and led to a succession of hit movies. No major cultural event of the forties and fifties was allowed to go untackled by a Disney animation: with PINOCCHIO he blew the lid off the lying puppet problem in Italy, while DUMBO drew attention to the grave dangers posed by levitating pachyderms, pink or otherwise, and in 1940 FANTASIA warned a world plunging into global warfare of the destruction that would ensue if ballet dancing was ever taken up by hippopotami.

Meanwhile, the Fleischer brothers did something awful with insects.

While Disney reigned supreme in feature animation, he did have rivals in the short subject category. To compete with his Silly Symphonies and Crazy Concertos, Warner Bros rolled out their anarchic Merry Melodies, Looney Tunes, Phobic Phanphares and Bipolar Bagatelles, starring violently-inclined rodents, fowl, swine, etc. These were successful but led to concerns that showing such aggressive by livestock could cause problems with imitative behaviour. In 1947, the Herschell Gordon Freleng cartoon FUDD FEAST had to be briefly withdrawn after an incident in Fort Collins, Colorado, involving a duck and a stick of dynamite. It was later reported that instances of coyotes strapping themselves to rockets quadrupled during the years when Chuck “Charles M.” Jones was directing his beloved ROADRUNNER toons, and anti-violence campaigners point to the fact that such incidents are seldom reported today as proof of the deleterious effects of animated mayhem upon impressionable canines.

Pixar’s KRAZY KOMPUTER is often cited as the first computer animation, but in fact it is a conventional cel animation DEPICTING a playful computer doing sums and emitting a long piece of paper. But soon, computers everywhere were DOING the animation, saving colossal amounts of time and money, which is why animated feature films today are so famously cheap and quick to make. The photorealistic approach also allowed animation to stage a successful takeover of the live action film, with first special effects, then sets, then makeup, being infiltrated by the pixel-pushers. Today, everything is a cartoon, from the action cinema of James Cameron, to the sensitive dramas of Noah Baumbach (Adam Driver is based on an old Ub Iwerks drawing found torn up in a wood) to the news. The world is governed now by cartoon characters. They draw the editorial cartoons first and then get semi-convincing CGI creations to act them out.

Don’t tell me you hadn’t noticed.

The Booster

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on April 20, 2012 by dcairns

So, I’m now an employee of Edinburgh International Film Festival — it seems I’ll be doing some writing for the catalogue, and I’ve viewed a hundred or so films submitted to the fest. Submissions editors see a lot of junk, but we also see some really good stuff. The assumption might be that the really hot ticket films are ones a festival has to pursue, not ones submitted on spec by filmmakers hungry for exposure, but in fact submissions are often where the next hot-ticket indies are discovered. I saw some very good stuff — none of which I can discuss at present.

This means that anything I say about the Festival from now on can be seen in a slightly different light — I’m no longer just a fan of the thing. Still, I hope I can maintain a degree of integrity and independence if I review anything during Festival time, but I might have to be careful of that — a policy of accentuate the positive, whereby I write honestly about films I like and leave out the others, might be best. Unless I get really cross about something, in which case I’ll still bite my tongue until after it’s screened to the public.

But with Chris Fujiwara in charge, I’m really not sure there’s much to worry about.

This year’s opening film is William Friedkin’s second collaboration (after the creepy BUG) with playwright/screenwriter Tracy Letts — KILLER JOE. Friedkin is expected to attend, which ought to be interesting to say the least.

The retrospective, the thing which ties a festival together in my view (and which was sadly missed last year), is about Shinji Somai, about whom I know NOTHING — so I’m very excited.

Chris Fujiwara:  “Shinji Somai is one of the most personal and original Japanese filmmakers, and a master whose work has been almost completely neglected outsideJapan. Just over ten years after his passing, I believe the time is right for Somai. Audiences and critics will be amazed by what they discover in this body of work, which I’m delighted to bring to theUK.”

And the closing film is delightfully apt, given Pixar’s long friendly realtionship with Edinburgh, and given the Scottish subject of their new movie —

Toy Story 3

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on August 7, 2010 by dcairns

Contains mild spoilers and, in an attempt to avoid more mild spoilers, treats the reader as if they’ve seen the film and know what I’m talking about. See the film!

I never know whether to review modern films or not. They’re a part, albeit a small part, of my film-viewing experience, and therefor theoretically grist to the mill of Shadowplay. Too much of current releases would erode what’s individual about this place, I feel, but there’s little danger of me seeing enough modern films for that to happen. Unless you think even one a month is too many?

TOY STORY 3 seemed to me just as good as its predecessors, which I like a whole bunch — I can’t really see any aesthetic standard by which the best modern CGI toons can be considered much inferior to their Golden Age predecessors from the Disney stable. But I’m not an animator, of course. (I’ve dabbled, but so half-heartedly I’d be ashamed to enumerate my experiences.) It’s pretty unusual for a series to spin to three installments without losing quality, and perhaps the fact that this edition feels very much like a final chapter is part of the secret: they’ve thrown everything at it, on the assumption that they might not be doing this again.

The humans are still the only weak point: remember how clunky Andy and his Mom are in the first film? And the Toy Collector in II was grossly overdetailed and unpleasant. Andy is now a teenager (seeing him and his sister and dog age in approximately real time between films is one of the strange pleasures afforded by the films’ long schedules) and rather a bland figure, like a junior Ken doll himself, although to compensate there’s a very nicely observed little girl.

I was entertained but not blown away for the film’s first half, but once the toys get separated and we meet a new batch of characters, things brightened up. For one thing, I could appreciate how insanely off-base this article in the Independent newspaper is, which was diverting. The movie actually has a rich and affectionately observed range of female characters, and the jokes about Ken seeming a bit gay are pretty far from homophobic. For one thing, Ken (spoiler alert) turns from villain to hero, his love of fashion unchanged. He’s not gay, anyway, just unconventional, a male who doesn’t conform to gender expectations, and the film says that’s OK.

I don’t really think the toys have sexuality anyway, as we know it. They draw their consciousness from human kids, is the way I see it, so they have a child’s idea of relationships and can form into couples, like Mr and Mrs Potato Head or, in a Han-and-Leia twist, Buzz Lightyear and Jessie. But we know what Ken and Barbie look like naked, and conventional sex doesn’t look to be on the cards for them. (That said, the heartrending “When She Loved Me,” in TOY STORY 2 is the most moving same-sex expression of love you’re likely to find in a kids’ film.)

(But it really needs the image track in order to fully rip your heart out.)

The most striking thing for me in this one was the very dark, very distressing scene of group jeopardy at the city dump, where the heroes find themselves on a conveyor belt towards incineration. This gives us one of the great conflicted-response gags I’ve always enjoyed in this series (see also: Buzz’s discovery that he’s a toy in part 1: heartbreaking AND cruelly hilarious). The line “I can see daylight!” delivers just the right kind of laugh-before-the-storm. The apocalyptic, indeed positively holocaustic threat our plastic pals face next seems to me the closest scrape with convincing extinction a cartoon character has faced since Bambi’s mom. Does the film earn such strong stuff? It’s hard to summon up a cogent argument in the face of something so powerful, either for or against — I found it powerful and deeply distressing, and very moving, taking the series’ ongoing theme of the value of friendship all the way to the end of the line…

Interestingly, there were no screams and tears from the little kids attending, which one might have expected. My theory to account for this is that kids are fundamentally selfish, so the things that upset them in movies are not those which menace the characters, but those which seem to menace THEM — Cruella DeVille coming out of the screen to take their puppies away, for instance. Despite the immersive, 3D nature of TOY STORY 3, the kind of empathic response evoked by the furnace of doom scene are inherently more upsetting to adults, who not only care more about the characters, they get the reference.