Sunday, February 28, 2010

Everything is Provisional

In the early part of this decade one of animation's greatest living artists was living in New York as Columbia University's resident artist.

That this escaped the "animation community" is evidence of the insular, self referential natures of all groups.

Fortunately, the insular, self referential "art community" has not failed to take notice of William Kentridge.  Nearly a decade after his landmark exhibition at the Guggenheim SoHo, the MoMA now has  an even more impressive, more expansive show (originally mounted by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art).

Here's the official exhibition site.

Many who work in animation will have gallery shows in attempt to expand their audience.  Often, this work has solid technical foundation and a level of "appeal" that animators are trained to go after.  Kentridge's work -his drawings hang in the main galleries of the show -have power.  Strong charcoals, kinetic viscera --impact.  First and foremost, Kentridge is a great artist.  Moving pictures is simply his primary means of communication.

Three of the galleries were wholly new to me -mostly work created in the last decade.  They mark a departure from what we may know as "Kentridge films".  Journey to the Moon is part homage to Georges Melies, but more a stepping stone for the artist to move into the otherworldly.  This pays off with his stirring treatment of Die Zauberflote in the next gallery which projects on 3 channels in succession.  Two of the projections are even in a sort of 3D.

It's an extraordinary exhibit.  The curators, the architects, the engineers, everyone who put it together should be proud.  Give yourself at least 3 hours to take it in, or plan on multiple trips.

The gallery for the older Soho and Felix series (which contains my favorite image of his -"Her Absence Filled The World") has this statement from the artist:

"Everything can be saved.  Everything is provisional. A prior action is rescued by that which follows. A drawing abandoned is revived by the next drawing... The smudges of erasure thicken time in the film, but they also serve as a record of the days and months spent making the film -a record of thinking in slow motion."
 Here's a bootleg clip from a theatrical performance of The Magic Flute directed by Kentridge, embedding is disabled. CLICK HERE to have your mind blown

Saturday, February 27, 2010


Martha Colburn stopped by to show some new films.

One, "Triumph of the Wild" is being acquired by the MoMA.  We walked up a block in the snow to check out the HD transfer/color correct from her 16mm negative.

From there she's recording to 35mm and various tape/digital formats.  Tape formats only stay standard for about 10 - 15 years.  1 inch, Umatic, D1, Digibeta, now a few formats a vying for HD tape supremacy -HDCAM SR and the older D5.  Pure digital is ok, but drives will break down faster than tape. 

Friday, February 26, 2010

Break That Joint

Especially with the ascendance of Richard Williams' book at a teaching tool, the principle of "breaking the joint" in animation has taken a aura of magic.

Art Babbitt's camel from "Raggedy Ann" is held as a prime example of this device -although he did it (along with John Sibley) extensively on the Disney "Goofy" shorts, and other animators from Terrytoons' Jim Tyer to Ken Harris on Bugs Bunny employed it.

There's a notion that it gives that extra "something" to animation to make it snap.

In many instances, it actually mimics how film captures human motion.


This is a shot from a Cab Calloway documentary we're working on.  Cab will be dancing with this dancer from Alvin Ailey.


We've picked just his arms moving, one at a time to focus on.
He begins to raise his right arm.
The joint is relatively natural.


Look out.  Not only is he moving faster than the lens/shutter can capture him -causing a blur, the angle of his arm in relation to the camera make his bend look impossible.
Now even more.


And straightening.

Arm lands at key position.

Left arm moves.




Now the right starts again.


And the hips follow once both arms go into motion.


Looseness in the right arm at the elbow and wrist.  Not broken, just limber.

And the left arm hits its key.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

News of March 3, 1944

Been remiss in posting these. It looks like there's over a year's worth, but the paper is so fragile flipping through to get a full count can destroy them.

The first page is a recap of a meeting between producers and the union. Most of it is a recap of grievances against and by Leon Schlesinger.

Some friction involved union members returning from military duty. Fred Quimby assured work for them all.

There's an interesting dynamic surrounding management/labor and the war. Both the union and management are jockeying to use WWII as a mean to exert their positions -either by complaining about the output of wartime workers or by expanding their membership with these workers.

Page two recaps the "state of the union" at the various Hollywood shops. Disney, MGM, Schlesinger (not yet WB), Screen Gems, Lantz, George Pal, Lou Bunin, and Plastic.

Page three runs down a few comings and goings from studios and births and marriages.

Also two cryptic notes about the general labor situation in Los Angeles. For details on these, see Tom Sito's well researched booked on Hollywood Animation Labor history.

Also of interest to many -the notice of a performance by Ward Kimball and "The Huggageedy Eight" at the Norco Navel Hospital. Also on the bill was the Bandolau Group, a Brazilian band, then recording for Disney.

Page four set forth new rules for meetings. Interesting for anyone involved in with rules of procedure.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


I've written before that research is always the first step in executing an idea.

The first true involvement I felt on a profession project was doing research for a series of films for The Truman Library produced by The Ink Tank.  It's also the most fun part for me.

For one project we're working on, we have to be culturally specific as well as reproduce a person's likeness.


The filmmakers we're working with provided these, otherwise I'd have spent a lot of time tracking them down.

Every project has its own graphic and cinematic language.  It's generally impractical to create one from whole cloth, so using terminology that's already out there is a good start.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Return To Sender

Finally got around to checking the returns from the Christmas Card mailing.

About a 5% return to sender rate this year.

I won't belabor the "concept", just note that every card contained a unique illustration courtesy of our staff: Christina Capozzi Riley, Elliot Cowan, Liesje Kraai, Kristen Collins and Carolyn Green.

These are what people missed out on.

Keep your address updated! If you didn't get a card and want to be included in future mailings, drop us an email to get on the list.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Not On Board

A few months back we bid a project for a guy on the other coast.

We put together a solid budget, all the appropriate lines covered, all the items matching the schedule. That's the job of producing. Planning time and money. I wish it was tossing darts at a board or spinning a big wheel. Some people treat it that way, and I like to appear casual about it all but there's precision to it.

We also did a storyboard based on a vague creative description.


First I did a rough one.  I showed it to Elliot Cowan who re-did it, only better solving the concept's resolution in a simple, elegant way.


This is Elliot's board.


It smarts a little when you put a lot of thought into a pitch and it doesn't come through.  That's the nature of the business -you land maybe one out of ten bids.  The rest go somewhere else, or more frequently, never happen.


Worse than not landing an assignment is not getting any response to your bid.

We're  grown ups, we can handle "no."  Good business needs good relationships, this is true from both the client and the vendor point of view.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Shoot 2

The number one difference between live action and animation: call time.

We were on the road at 6:45 am heading to Philadelphia for the second part of our shoot on Thomas Eakins' "John Biglin in a Single Scull".

cameraman Ben Shapiro unpacking

We spoke with an Olympic oarsman and coxswain at the Penn AC boathouse.


At shot a little bit of the river.  This week we'll be editing, aiming to finish by Wednesday.
Next, we'll probably make a transcript of the interviews, and build a story from there.  We have some specific ideas, but in documentary its important to let the subject guide you.

Saturday, February 20, 2010


Yesterday we took a trip up to Yale to speak with Helen A. Cooper about Thomas Eakins' "John Biglin in a Single Scull".  Today we're going to Philadelphia to shoot the location (more on that tomorrow).

Not only was she gracious and well informed -a great interview -Yale allowed us full access to the original work.

(above: detail through magnifying lens)

Watercolors, all "works on paper", are kept under strict conditions since they can't be restored.

I was also privileged to an upclose and personal view of four Winslow Homers -all four very different uses of watercolor -and some Hoppers.

(above: cameraman Ben Shapiro admires the painting with Helen Cooper)

Days like this remind you how lucky life can be.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Barenaked Things Come Out In Animation

Yuri Norstein's talk at SVA the other day reminded me of the last under camera cut out film I worked on.

The technique, for better and for worse, has been taken over by technology. It's the simplest method of animation and can be accomplished with minimal skill in any number of digital applications: anything from Final Cut Pro, a high end Discreet Logic/Autodesk (Flame, Smoke, Inferno, etc), Commotion, AfterEffects, Flash, and on and on.

One of the issues Norstein brought up with his technique is how "things come out in animation". A shot which was planned to be 3 seconds (OK 6 seconds, he's Russian) might go on twice as long.

We were given about ten days from first phone call to broadcast to produce a two minute concert opener for The Barenaked Ladies. The assignment was open, but they wanted us to incorporate the cover art from their album. They may have also said "kung fu", I don't remember.

This film was produced at Maciek Albrecht's place on Bedford Avenue. It was a tight crew, Maciek and Ellie, Matthew Salata and Megan Whitmarsh. Alex Reshanov may have helped out too.

The first step, as always, was the storyboard. We then created the art. Pieces were made in Photoshop, printed, affixed to bristol, cut out, edged (coloring the side of the board to match the color of the face) and attached into puppets. Many fingertips have been severed in the service of cut out animation.

A few days into shooting, Maciek pops out from his camera area and exclaims: "I am making a three minute film!"

"Maciek," I reply, still getting my "producer" sea legs, "it's only supposed to be 90 seconds, and it's due in three days."

"Some things come out under camera..."

He wound up filming a little more than three minutes, which Dave Courter edited down to 2:15.

One of the things that "came out" under camera was a missing right hand. The back up was also destroyed, but we had an extra left hand.

Maciek came up with the split second decision to backlight the characters into silhouette so you couldn't tell the hand was wrong. This also made the whole piece more dynamic. That's just one example of what a brilliant guy he is.

The piece was shot in color, but it looked better in black and white (another unconscious nod to Norstein, perhaps), so we drained the color in the Avid and made a hand delivery to backstage at Madison Square Garden.  Thousands of screaming teenagers whooped at the film which wasn't even a dream less than two weeks earlier.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Spirit Gallery

These are my favorite paintings from Fred Mogubgub, his "Spirit Series".

Numbers 1 through 4 live together in my living room.  I'm saving up to get #2 and #3 framed.  These are about 4.5 feet by 2.5 feet so framing runs over $500 a piece.  Numbers 3 and 4 have trompe l'oeil frames -an innovation of the artist to save his friends the expense of an actual frame.

There's power in framing a painting. These in particular with their mysticism, their otherworldliness, benefit from multiple layers to distance them back into their spirit realm.

These are portraits of spirits who visited the painter.  He was prone to unearthly encounters, including a conversation with Emanuel Swedenborg  in a phone booth outside Grand Central Station.

I imagine this talk influenced the work that followed these paintings (and is evidenced in #4), which strive to combine the physical with the spiritual.

This is the first one.  From 1980.  

This is #2, he followed shortly after.  The palate is narrowed to olive grey shades.

From a distance he looks a little frightening, approach and you can see an inviting look.

#3 from 1982.  Backgrounds are introduced.  The spirits are still emerging through a mist, but now we see deeper.

#4 has a tear which needs repair.  I wonder if he came over after his wife (#3).  Both of these add to the monochrome of #1 and #2 implying the visions coming clearer.

I took snapshots of a few others several years ago and posted them earlier.