Wednesday, December 31, 2008

All Aboard, America!

Some time in high school, it might have been Jerry Taylor's AP History class, the notion that train nuts were intricately bound up with Fascists took seed in my brain.

Deep down, this explains why I'm not socially comfortable with animators. So many are train nuts.

On the other hand, I dig ladies in Claude Montana. Crypto-fascist aesthetics can't be the issue with train nuts.

Never having a driver's license, there's no romance to trains. They are a practical means of transportation. They are limited in their destinations, and frequently let you down.

And model trains? I don't know. Nostalgia, I guess. Nostalgia for an imagined past. That's one connection to fascism.

This nostalgia is so real, imaginary Hudson River towns are constructed by 3o men over the course of three days to make the dream palpable.

Even if you intellectually reject the lure of this false past, this empty nostalgia -the visceral attraction is too hard to resist.

The carnival; a netherworld of childhood possibilities. Hot dogs, strange girls from the other Catholic school, eerie daylight ballooning through night in the darkest part of town.

Somewhere in the brain's farthest corner is the sound of a crackling speaker and the whiff of summer air and the happiest sleep in the back seat of the car imprinted from a single trip to a drive-in over two decades ago.

Our common experiences become extraordinary in miniature. We don't make a wide circle past the swollen drunk outside of White Castle, we step in closer. Maybe this is why god loves humans.

Maybe it's just the oversized pumpkins.

The giant train model train world will be up a Citigroup Center at 53rd and Lexington until January 2nd. It's been there for over a decade. This may be it's last show, the exhibit's sponsor has dropped out for next year.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Fresh Kills Doesn't Know What It's Missing

We only sent out around 800 cards this year. Depression, and everything.

Usually we're in the 2,000 to 3,000 range.

It cuts deep to soul when the holiday season winds down and we only have a handful of cards in return.

Maybe it's the digital era. We get double this in "e-mail cards". Ebneezer Scrooge had a lot of good ideas (at the beginning of the book), I'm sure he'd fully "Bah Humbug" the e-card.

He'd probably give a hearty "Harumph!" to the posted card as well, but even I'm not that heartless.

I am heartless enough to critique the cards, though. Here are some of this year's best.

For the first few days this was the front runner for the grand prix.

This is from François Chambard, the industrial designer. I worked with his wife Kathleen when I was in college (she's a polyglot!).

Three things I like: 1) It's designy in a clever way. The iconography form an image associated with the season with being literal. Smart. 2) Great production. No banding in the red gradient. Offset print by high quality printer. 3) Restrained. We're in the midst of an economic mess. There's no showiness to this card. Overall an appropriate and beautiful card.

And a fourth. It reminds me of Folon.

Dave Levy gets a nod for his clever card. Clearly a result of his recent batch of submissions to The New Yorker, this one should have made it into the magazine.

If you can't read it, the caption says "It's hard to be jolly when you're only employed one day a year."

Mitch Friedman gets the weirdest card award. Maybe this shouldn't count because it's not holiday themed. It did come in with the cards, and is the only one that won't be in the landfill next week.

That's his real hair.

"Bunny and Cat" signed Linda and Jeremy Beck's card.

In some ways its fortunate Bunny and Cat were only pictured in silhouette (nice touch). If this card were any cuter it would get its own wing of the zoo.

Here's a case of successful irony. The card plays on 1950's magazine advertising and Donna Reed visions of the happy American family, it also nods to the tradition of family photo cards. Obviously, that's tongue-in-cheek. It works because its open, its happy. It displays a joy and a love that can only be spread through the U. S. Postal Service.

Joey Ahlbum.

This year, some of the old stand-bys came through again.

Phil Marden.

Both of these cards are digital prints. Joey Ahlbum's card uses toothed paper stock to hide the print process.

Phil Marden's card minimizes color and simplifies line to keep from taxing the limits of his print process.

Lizzy McGlynn and Mark Reilly sort of "bit" our idea to do block cuts. Of course, we might not have thought of it if not for "All About Prints" which we worked on with Lizzy. So they get a pass.

Simple, handcrafted, classic design. A card you can send to your 7 mass a week Grandma, or your anarcho-syndicalist Nephew.

The best card of the year (maybe I should drag this out into another post) was determined by committee.

The staff agreed that a longtime card champion -an aged hero, as it were -once again grabs the ring.

We're not fans of the photo-print, in general. But once again, Tony Eastman makes it work. "Econo Christmas". Clever, festive, appropriate, original.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Har, Har, Har on the A C E

We did the graphics for this 6 part series on comedy that's premiering on PBS in 2 weeks.

The advertising was on the subway today.

For Make 'Em Laugh (produced and directed by Michael Kantor) we did over 1000 shots. Most of them were pretty simple, color correction, camera moves. Some were a little trickier.

And we did get to animate with cut outs two entire sequences for the Situation Comedy episode.

Friday, December 26, 2008

You Talkin' To Me?

We bought this for 10 cents from the Westside Pistol and Rifle Range when we shared the same building at 2o W. 20th Street a few years back.

The framing cost like a hundred bucks.

These are the types of extravagances that kill me.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Simple Gift

I was having a conversation with R. O. Blechman about illustration. Actually, I think it might have been about Ed Smith and his insistence on working without in betweeners or assistants (more on that in the future). We talked about the film he animated for the 1978 Christmas Special Simple Gifts, we talked about a few Ed Sorel commercials he did.

Then Bob asked if I would like an original peice of art. Hell yeah.

Later he approached with this drawing:

"Funny, it doesn't look like a Sendak. It looks like Ed Sorel"

"Oh, you wanted a Sendak." He replied, as shocked at the misunderstanding as I was.

The next day he gives me a package, in it is the drawing from Simple Gifts.

All of Sendak's original artwork is donated to a children's hospital in Philadelphia. So these are pretty rare. I'll sell it for $5000, if anybody's buying. (He writes, only half-joking)

It's signed by Ed Smith who did the drawing, and Maurice Sendak who designed the character.

Missing is the autograph of Sara Calogero who did the watercolor. Sara's art production skills were unparalleled.

The Sorel drawing is a nice bonus. Note the paste up on the hood ornament.

Once I asked Ed Smith (who animates in ink) what he does when he makes a mistake.

His response: "I'll let you know when that happens."

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Good Book

It's a holy time of year, I guess.

above: Luke 2:7, illustrated by Raymond C. Raeke III

Celebrate by drawing a picture for the book that launched a million ships!

For the past few years Patrick and Kate Hambrecht have been curating an open source art project to illustrate the Bible verse by verse. To date it's about 9% finished.

Regardless of your feelings about art, or the Bible, or Patrick and Kate it's an interesting endeavor which utilizes technology and a powerful cultural icon to build a common project. The contributors are professionals (Tony Millionaire, Danny Hellman, Dame Darcy, et al.) and horrible, rank amateurs (me).

As you're drowning your sorrows in eggnog and hidden flasks of Kentucky bourbon this holiday season, pull out a Sharpie and a King James and draw up some Bible verses!

Proverbs 3:25 by Marc Crisafulli

You don't even need to know how to draw:

Zephaniah 1:2 "I will utterly consume all things from the land, saith the lord."

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Monkey Business

About a year ago we worked on a baby food commercial. This job involved three things -making a baby carriage out of fruit, making a monkey out of fruit, and flying to Mexico City to animate them.

We were given a list of ingredients to use.

This is when I learned that you can't find everything in New York City. There are some tropical fruit that simply don't make it this far in December.

If your average Gristedes doesn't carry papaya in the middle of winter, what do you do? Your friend of 20 years who works for a fancy restaurant no help? Gray's Papaya has "papaya" in their name -maybe they'll sell you one!

Of course ask the Gray's Papaya worker for anything other than the $2 special and you'll be answered with a confused grunt and a thousand yard stare. Get the manager, who for some reason is unable to sell you the fruit unless it's smashed into a frothy beverage, to tell you where they get their supply and you'll tap into every piece exotic produce available on the North Atlantic Seaboard. That's why I'm OK at my job -things like that.

We worked up a few models with the material we could find. This let us plan for the shoot in Mexico.
Here's the final monkey. And the one made out of fruit, too (har, har).

With monkey is Abbey Luck who helped us out on the shoot and was the lead animator.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Romans Had A Word For It

Upside to the construction of all the hotels and luxury condominiums around the studio -the uncloaking of ancient billboards.

There are still remnants of the fur trade on 29th Street, one block north of Asterisk headquarters -just as there are still enough holdout florists on 28th to call it "The Flower District" (not a single piano to be heard down the block, though, au revoir Tin Pan Alley).

The years have begun to reveal the layers of many billboards. One generation furrier marking over the spot of his forefathers -destined to fade as one as long as the building stands.

Here's the only recent painting done on 29th Street.

It's just like a billboard, right?

Well, its marking the public space. That much is true.

Other than distribution point, vandalism and advertising bear little similarity. Advertising is a dialog. It asks the citizen, "Do you know about me? Will you buy me?" At its best, advertising offers individual information about something they need. "Have a headache? This pill will make it go away!" "Need fur? Coch Furrier can help."

Graffiti, on the other hand is a private marking of public space. At best, its a coded language -like the symbols hobos use to mark railyards. Unless we're all hobos, it amounts to little more than private greed encroaching on public space. Eminent domain of hoodlums.

The painted wall has largely been displaced by posters and freestanding billboards.

For the winter season Home Box Office has produced a 21st Century variation on the painted wall.

This is at Sixth Avenue and 24th Street.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Speaking of David Bowie...

A little while back I was involved with a woman (musician, nothing to do with animation) who had this:

For you younger readers, that's a "picture disk". It has music "encoded" into circular grooves which can be heard by spinning it against a needle with an amplifier attached. Sort of like this:

Usually they were round and black like in the picture above.

Picture disks were special promotions. Collector's items, like pogs or Grimace glasses from McDonald's.

This picture disk was the eponymous single (don't make me explain that...) by David Bowie from the soundtrack to the animated film When the Wind Blows.

I hadn't seen the film at the time I was dating the woman. For clarity's sake, she hadn't seen it either.

The film was released in 1986. I remember 1986. As a child, I was afraid of nuclear war. Reagan was a scary son of bitch. The media uproar over The Day After led to school board assemblies across America. What should we tell our children? The children! The children!

Today, when I hope against hope for an atom bomb to plop square on my noggin, When the Wind Blows is a curious artifact. It's production technique is interesting -painstaking in its day, easily achieved by amateurs 20 years later. The characterizations and animation are heartfelt.

The story -a long, brutal descent into wretchedness and death by two geriatric Brits -is, well, a long, brutal descent. I suspect the content of the film is as alien and bizarre today as the 45 rpm picture disk pressed to promote it.

Friday, December 19, 2008

What Are We Gonna Do With All These Hugh Jackmen?

Nikola Tesla sent the first man made radio transmission right around the corner from our studio. He died just up the street at The New Yorker Hotel.

The building where FM was born in 1896 is now called the Radio Wave Building in his honor, although it was the Gerlach Hotel at the time.

He lived there from 1895 until 1899 when the building ran into some finance issues. This prompted the scientist's move to Colorado. Interestingly, the principle player in the foreclosure was J. Pierpont Morgan who was Tesla's financier during his time out West.

One block away from the Radio Wave Building:

With reports of a Japanese invention that creates images from thoughts, can a plasma particle death beam be far behind?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Sullen Shoegaze: Thoughts on "Waltz With Bashir"

Waltz With Bashir opens in New York next week.

A few year's ago Chris Landreth's Ryan received mad acclaim. It's a highly flawed film, many were willing to overlook its shortcomings because they connected with it on some level -its a film about the fragile consciousness of filmmakers, about the precipice of insanity and failure. It never comes fully around to any profound revelation. Revelation was unnecessary, its audience -animators and Oscar voters -already shared the same inner knowledge.

Those who are moved by Waltz With Bashir, and there are many, are products of a similar effect. They are invested in the subject matter and accept the material as successful as long as it doesn't undermine their beliefs. Waltz With Bashir might question one's point of view about Israeli-Arab relations, but it ultimately reinforces what, in America at least, is most viewers' perspective.

And those of us who don't share this common ground? It's a film that would go unnoticed if not for the technique. It's not a bad film, it just isn't extraordinary. For an animated film it has merits beyond the typical cat and a mouse story. As such, it's "good for the medium" -showing creative possibilities outside the norm can achieve a degree of critical success.

I moderated a panel in Ottawa that included David Polonsky, the art director. He spoke about how the format (and subsequent marketing) of the film has helped it to stand out from the other Israeli conflict documentaries (there are many, apparently).

Animation is used as a gimmick. A highly successful gimmick, turning what would otherwise be a standard talking-head documentary of conflict and recovered past into a buzzworthy award-winner. In this regard, animation strengthens the picture and makes it significantly better. More entertaining, more universal.

The gimmick is further extended by claiming the film as "documentary". "Animated documentary" is a hot term, its also an oxymoron that discredits both the process of animation and the form/process of documentary.

External denominators can be overlooked. Marketing ploys can be ignored.

On screen Waltz With Bashir presents itself as a first person narrative of exploration. It's tone and pacing are similar to the autobiographical comics of the 1990s -Joe Sacco's Palestine, David B.'s Epileptic, David Collier. Here is where technique fails.

Documentary, in its essence, gives us an understanding of an individual or group's situation in the world. It gives us connection and personal insight. Animation, as a technique, inherently removes the personal connection between speaker and audience. The act of creating a new visual universe with illustrated characterizations erects a fortified barrier between the words spoken on screen and the heartstrings of the theatergoer.

In the comic books that share similar cadence with the film this barrier doesn't exist.

In comic books, the reader communes directly with the artist. In animation, the process removes authorship from the product.

This barrier is not impenetrable, obviously. Accomplished character animation breaches the barrier. Humane and appealing design help with the connection. An effective soundtrack steers the audience's reactions. A deft understanding of the subtleties of human nature can make up for the natural relationship lost by replacing living humans with artistic replicas. Waltz with Bashir fails to exploit the strengths of animation to compensate for the technique's shortcomings.

The animation to begin the film is effective -a pack of wild dogs storming through a city.

A promising beginning. This sequence also features the film's first missed opportunity. The dogs are terrifying (just look at them). In one shot they race passed a mother cradling her toddler in fear. She cowers -get this -facing the oncoming horde. What could have been a moving and insightful shot -if only she had her back to the dogs -is reduced to an exercise in screen direction and motion dynamics. A simple thing, but indicative of a lifelessness that permeates Waltz with Bashir.

Waltz with Bashir explores territory that's not altogether unfamiliar to the animated feature.

Paul Fierlinger's Drawn From Memory, last year's remarkable Persepolis, even Waking Life -all touch upon some of the same themes. Waltz With Bashir lacks the same deftness as those films. Unfair, true, as those three rank amongst the great achievements of the medium.

The title scene has a harried soldier dancing and shooting amongst posters of the slain Christian leader Bashir Gemayel as machine gun fire passes him. It's supposed to be moving, I guess. It's trying very hard to be transcendent. If you don't have that built-in connection to the material, the impulse to care, the filmmaking in Waltz With Bashir won't give you any reason to feel connected.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Dear Diary, Today I Saw Some Art; or, Miró Miró on the Wall

My New School ID gets me and guest into the MoMA for free -that's the cash benefit for being my "friend".

If you were my friend, I could've saved you $20 on the Joan Miró exhibit.

Now, internet stranger, I will compensate by saving you the time and the money. My description, while it may not exceed being there, certainly surpasses the death-defying fight through Midtown tourists at holiday season.

The show features 12 series (and one individual piece) created between 1927 and 1937 -a time when Spain erupted into civil war and the artist fought to "destroy" painting.

The exhibit opens with eight "Paintings on Unprimed Canvas".

above: Painting (Head), 1927

So, I thought I liked Miró. This opening gallery is pretty weak. You can see why designers are attracted to his work -and animators. The pieces in the series look like they could be covers to paperback novels with the right type treatment.

The second gallery contains "Spanish Dancers".

Oh, there it is. Even though most in this are uninspiring, the above Spanish Dancer reveals' the artist's appeal.

It's far stylistically from what we expect from Miró [Hirondelle D'amour and The Hunter (Catalan Landscape) from the Museum's general collection fit the bill]. Beyond style, Spanish Dancer displays wit -distilling form into geometry using cork, a hatpin and a feather. This is what a dancer is, for sure.

One step more, Miró's work isn't about the shapes or the color. Those are design elements. Shape and color are media used to present what is essential to his work. Texture and proximity (or in art terms "juxtaposition") comprise the foundation of the work.

Three forms together make a dancer, the shape is incidental.

As the exhibit progresses to the next gallery, "Dutch Interiors and Imaginary Portraits" the painting begins resemble the work we associate with the artist.

above: Portrait of La Fornarina (1929) based on Raphael's La Fornarina.

Parts of Raphael's woman are reduced to abstraction and given meaning through their position on canvas.

Also of note in this gallery: the frame for Portrait of Queen Louise of Prussia. What an amazing frame.

The next few galleries are duds. This is a large exhibition.

One includes sculpture. "Constructions and Objects". Is this work any different from a river town Sunday artist? Do amoeba shapes and vermillion paint make a work more profound because we immediately identify them with an artist?

The sculpture does help elucidate the rest of Miró's work. There's value in that, making it an important part of the show.

The series which shows the artist's hand (holding the key to his work) is "Paintings Based on Collages".

This is why designer's love him -he worked just like them.

Starting from collage created from newspaper clippings, Miró organized the images in a form that made sense (read: juxtaposed). Using curves and color, he translated these mechanical figures into lifeforms. The color and application have grit, palpability.

Genesis from mechanics.

A couple more relatively uninteresting galleries follow - Pastels on Flocked Paper (yeck!), Drawing Collages, Paintings on Cardboard (O.K., just not particularly interesting).

One thing on "Drawing Collages" and also. The collage is, by nature, textured. The multiple sources of material and the application to a canvas create tactility. This is a shortcut that undercuts Miró's strength -his ability to create that feeling with brush stroke and mixing media with paint. As a technician his shape and line are sensuous -as a thinker he creates rough terrain for that sensuality to play on. "Paintings on Cardboard" incorporate textures into paint, rope for example. The concept is more successful than the collage, but the series doesn't wholly hang together.

The "Small Paintings on Masonite and Copper" demonstrate this skill.

Figures in the Presence of a Metamorphosis (above) is painted on masonite. This is a smooth surface. Smoother than canvas, smoother than cardboard, smoother than paper. It's flat, flat, flat.

Not only does his brush stroke work a texture onto a medium which fights it, he adds crushed pigment to the green to further the tactility.

This man and woman, as disfigure as they (and their genitals) may be, are meant to be real. They are representations of something you can touch. The texture, the tactility, are necessary tools to convey that meaning.

The shapes are sensual because they are "real".

"Paintings on Masonite" is the final gallery. It wraps up the show in a bow. It's a progression from the previous group and ties in to the first.

Miró's work is appealing, the color and shapes are pretty. At times he feels like a great illustrator. Like Ben Shahn or Steinberg. Or a sinuous Paul Rand. Underlying that appeal is a humanism, an ability to create the human from the abstract and narrow the human figure to is essential, sensual curves.