THE ANIMATOR’S SURVIVAL KIT: A MANUAL OF METHODS, PRINCIPLES AND FORMULAS by Richard Williams, published by Faber and Faber, hardcover and softcover, 339 pages, with animation drawings throughout that illustrate the principles and concepts discussed.
The “how-to” is the oldest and most enduring of animation books. There’s something about the magic of animation that has always made people inquire, “How’d they do it?” And ever since E.G. Lutz started this genre in 1920, there’s been quite a steady stream of titles purporting to give the answer. But this one is the best. A longer review will follow shortly.
WALT DISNEY’S NINE OLD MEN & THE ART OF ANIMATION by John Canemaker, published by Disney Editions, hardcover, 310 pages, richly illustrated throughout, including photographs and animation artwork.
Every so often, fans of animation get a rare and perfect blessing, and in this case it’s an author in his prime making good on a publishing opportunity of a lifetime. John Canemaker is, surely, the single-most prominent writer of animation books in the world, so this is no small star-crossed occasion. Several books already in his oeuvre would be capstones to any career, but this one, WALT DISNEY’S NINE OLD MEN, might stand as his greatest. His Disney research over the last twenty years has taken him frequently through Nine Old Men territory. In fact, it’s frequently taken him directly to the Nine, some of with whom he has maintained friendships. Simply put, they are indispensible resources, an historian’s strongest access to the secrets of animation’s Golden Age. Yet the Nine Old Men enjoyed more than just ringside seats to the Golden Age; their own story is as much the story of Disney animation as any other.
Walt Disney, with his natural flair for publicity, made this book possible (years in advance) by simply giving the members of his Animation Board their collective name when they were still nine rather young men. In naming them, their legend grew. But it was they, the most loyal and talented of his animators, who allowed Walt’s stature to endure. With Walt’s diminishing interest in the animated features, they perhaps prematurely became the studio elders. And as much as they shaped the course of Disney animation for decades to come, they led by always asking themselves: what would Walt do? They so revered the past that they became like monks, both carrying on a tradition and also carrying that tradition on to a new generation of animators.
John Canemaker understands this, and he also is monk-like in passing along their stories. His nine biographies within this book provide many observations from today’s master animators and also pay homage to the original masters on whose shoulders the Nine were fully aware they stood. He orders the book’s biographies by studio hiring dates, starting with Les Clark, then moving on to Woolie Reitherman, Eric Larson, Ward Kimball, Milt Kahl, Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, John Lounsbery, and Marc Davis. With twenty years of research under his belt, and the corroboration of peers in the field, Canemaker has written a remarkable and fitting tribute to these important artists whose animated sequences comprise some of the most-watched and admired films of all time.
In his preface, Canemaker cites his ambition to have always written a book modeled on Giorgio Vasari’s LIVES OF THE ARTISTS. It is inferred that, like the Italian Renaissance, a tapesty of lives might be the true story of an era. There have already been plenty of survey histories covering Disney’s Golden Age. With this book’s focus on nine pivotal lives, readers are offered a new revealing window on an otherwise much-told tale. The overlapping revelations of these parallel biographies is certainly entertaining and should surprise even longtime Disneyphiles. We discover that Kahl and Kimball, the most irreverent of the group, were the two upon whom Walt conferred “genius” status. Reading the other biographies reveals just how much friction this caused. Or how powerful the lobby of Frank and Ollie truly was, undermining others’ ambitions. Or how separated the clout was between the B-wing and D-Wing animators.
It is to the great credit of Disney Editions that Canemaker was allowed to write such a warts-and-all account of these men. The friction between the Nine Old Men grew tense after Walt’s passing, as they bristled at each others’ efforts to maintain the Disney tradition. Most of them retired in disgust. Somehow, however, they not only survived, but saved the feature animation unit by delivering hit films even after Walt’s death and by endowing a future through the nurturing of young trainees in the 1970s: animators like Glen Keane, Don Bluth, John Lasseter, and Andreas Deja, among others. And, as with previous instances when the Disney corporation has allowed honest appraisals, the Disney luster is only enhanced, not tarnished, when we’re allowed in to see what a struggle it all was, to see what a miracle it really is that the dream outlives Walt.
If there is any unrealized portion of the book, it would have to be the end of the era. Of course, it’s probably the area where most fans will be least interested. At this stage in the Nine Old Men’s lives, with their energy withering under a new unsympathetic management, they left the studio in either poor health or poor spirits. It’s depressing to read, though some of them did live long enough to see the studio’s fortunes turn by the 1990’s, and those left of the Nine were vindicated by the films animated by their apt pupils. However, a reader is left with occasional unfinished business. For instance, there is the revelation that Frank and Ollie left the studio in 1978 in large part because the death of producer Bill Walsh was “almost equally traumatic” as Walt’s death, without much more explanation. Granted, a fuller account of the darkest years of Disney Feature Animation is a story big enough for an entirely new book and need not be the point of this one.
The story of the Nine Old Men is really an uplifting one, and it would be at the peril of a writer’s better instincts to dwell on the negative. Canemaker typically ends each biography with a humbling and humanizing account of each man. Sometimes, we learn, even these great talents struggled to make a good drawing. Many of them kept up a youthful wonder of all things new. And all of them, even in their hardest moments, took a profound satisfaction in having been a part of the magic of Disney. This book celebrates the achievements of these men and clarifies exactly what those achievements were. As well, lots of photographs and representative animation art fill the pages of this coffee table edition, nicely completing the text.
It’s a book that looks and feels important, and fortunately its heft is matched by the author’s engaging writing. Frank Thomas wrote Canemaker during the early stages of this book, imploring him, “don’t give it that sugary Disney treatment, these are real people leading real lives.” Canemaker obliged, and readers can now enjoy a book that immediately deserves a place among the very best animation books. It is a tribute that arrives at a time when Disney Feature Animation once again faces an uncertain future. Perhaps the lessons of Nine Old Men might again offer some new promise.
THE ART OF MONSTERS, INC. with introductions by John Lasseter and Pete Docter, published by Chronicle Books, hardcover, 144 pages, most of them with full color illustrations.
This companion book to Pixar’s fourth feature film is a collection of inspirational art that was created mostly during the early development of the movie. Oddly, there is barely any indication in this book that MONSTERS, INC. is actually a 3D digital film. Only two pages, a lineup of the main characters, show computer-rendered images. It’s an interesting and a quaint notion to show only the tactile flourish of the Pixar artists using “real” art materials, not virtual ones. Perhaps this is an effort to portray them as “real” artists, not caffeinated “tech-jocks” manipulating wireframe meshes on a computer? Whatever the reason for this unusual presentation, it’s ultimately disappointing because the staff at Pixar is the finest feature animation team in America today. No one seriously doubts the artistry of its animators and directors, and to ignore the digital production methods of the studio is to present only a fraction of the art of this film.
The artwork revealed is actually quite good. There are many inspired pieces, plenty of humorous images to enjoy, and even a large collection of conceptual work that was commissioned to noteworthy illustrators like J. Otto Siebold and Lane Smith, among others. The freelance assignments given to these illustrators was to imagine a city of monsters, and this book generously publishes their wildly imagined landscapes. There’s a real sense of fun to the book, so few will be disappointed by the visual feast of so many full-color conceptual paintings. To be sure, there’s no skimping on the quality and volume of reproductions here. And the title of the book is not misleading. After all, what a reader gets is, simply, the (conceptual) ART OF MONSTERS, INC.
The disappointment comes from what this book could have been. Pixar is a studio at the top of its game, demonstrating a Golden Age stature that will one day stand alongside, or very close to, the revolutionary work done years ago at 2719 Hyperion Avenue. This fourth film is another landmark in Pixar’s unbroken string of critical, commercial and technical successes. Unfortunately, the tiny role of text here in acknowledging any of this is no more than an occasional quotation, usually from director Pete Docter, and brief forewords by Docter and John Lasseter. Without an account of the film’s production, the appealing assortment of concept art loses its way. The somewhat random presentation does not reveal the compelling journey that creating MONSTERS, INC. must have been for the assembled talents who worked on it.
One day Pixar will be combed over by animation historians, just like that burgeoning little studio on Hyperion Avenue started by a fella named Disney. If we don’t find out the details of this film now, we will later. But it would be admirable if any sanctioned book on Pixar today would include a budget for someone to observe and record some living history. Granted, the budgets in book publishing are as constricted as in other entertainment divisions, but the value to animation fans of an insightful text next to those great pictures surely has an impact on sales. There’ll likely be more great Pixar films, so we can only hope that next time will bring a book with a good writer attached.
THE HAND BEHIND THE MOUSE by Leslie Iwerks and John Kenworthy, with an introduction by Leonard Maltin, published by Disney Editions, hardcover, 264 pages, 16 pages of b&w photographs.
Though Ub Iwerks is most famous for his role in creating Mickey Mouse, his greatest talent was probably not as an animator. It was while working as a film engineer for the Disney Studio for three decades that Ub probably came closest to wearing the mantle of “genius,” for a string of innovations and inventions that contributed as much to Hollywood magic as any shadow ever cast by a mouse. However, the only job in Hollywood less celebrated than animator is that of engineer. For all the cleverness of his many photochemical mattes and panoramic camera rigs, Ub will always be seen as an animator. That’s just the fickle nature of public legacies, even if his unique coupling of artistry and invention is his deepest legacy.
Walt Disney was very lucky to have had such a capable employee in his earliest endeavors, and it is not a stretch to imagine that without Ub, there might not be a Disney Studio. So much of the appeal of Mickey was attributed to the success of the animation synchronized to sound. Iwerks was the perfect man to pull this off. His speed, talent, and technical skills enabled Disney to rush “Steamboat Willie” to completion ahead of competitors, with a result that most could not imitate for years. Even Ub could not duplicate his success when he tried to go it alone a short time later. Flip the Frog and Willie Whopper now remain fascinating curiosities in animation history, and Iwerks eventually found very satisfying work back at Disney, but never again in the full capacity as animator.
It’s not that Ub Iwerks’ place in animation history has ever been in danger; it’s just been in need of clarification. Because he was enigmatic, and because he worked for so long at Disney, his actual contributions are still lost amid the myth-spinning of studio publicity. THE HAND BEHIND THE MOUSE is published by Disney Editions, yet it is the sort of book that finally sets the record straight. By publishing this, the authors (and the Disney corporation) have surely righted a wrong, giving credit where it is due. It’s co-written by Leslie Iwerks, who is Ub’s granddaughter, and John Kenworthy. Their research and presentation of contemporary opinions work nicely together, providing a revealing portrait. Some of the most insightful passages come from the Iwerks family, as their remembrances show just how wounded Ub was by frictions with Walt, and also how important their reconciliation was to him.
One thing that won’t go unnoticed by readers is the casual nature with which this book assures Ub’s initiative in creating Mickey. Granted, the Disney corporation has officially recognized his hand in this ever since it gave him the Legends Award postumously in 1989, but Ub’s role has always been painted in terms of how he colloborated with Walt to make Mickey. In this book, Ub takes on a more active and less subordinate role. That so much of the creation of Mickey was delegated to Ub has long been inferred, but never so forthrightly expressed in a book which bears the Disney logo.
Even readers very familiar with Iwerks are likely to find interesting new details, especially in regards to the early days of Ub and Walt, back in Kansas City. The anecdotes from the Iwerks Studio are also lots of fun to read. Animation fans might not find as much interest in the final chapters on Iwerks’ innovations as a film engineer, even though proportionate to his full career this section of the book could be much longer. It does, however, complete one’s appreciation of his vast achievements, and deserves to be read right through til the end.
THE HAND BEHIND THE MOUSE is very impressive and well researched. There are only a handful of unsubstantiated claims, such as the notion that a fading scene transition in the Iwerks Studio’s “Jack and the Beanstalk” had “set a new standard for a nonlinear, nonliteral approach to time transitions in animation and film in general.” Also, the suggestion that the animators at Iwerks were “quite possibly the greatest animation staff ever assembled” won’t be taken too seriously. Nonetheless, these are small beefs within a notable book that Disney Editions must be applauded for publishing.
It would surely have pleased Ub immensely to know that one day he would publicly be recognized for his creation of Mickey. However, even in this, he is measured in terms with which one might regard an engineer, or an athlete. Yes, Ub still inspires the modern generation of animators, but not because we marvel at his animation drawings of Mickey. It is because people are awed by the fact that he once turned them out at the staggering pace of seven hundred a day. One’s legacy is a fickle thing indeed, and with this book we finally know more about the man behind the hand behind the mouse.
A wonderful complement to reading this recommended book is a viewingof THE HAND BEHIND THE MOUSE: UB IWERKS, a documentary film written, produced and directed by Leslie Iwerks, which preceded her book by almost two years.The research and interviews for the film were made use of in the book, but the two are not simply duplicate presentations in different media. The film illustrates Ub’s personality better and makes a stronger case for his emotional disappointments, while the book provides more details about his career and fleshes out his own studio experiences more. Of course, the documentary offers actual clips of his filmwork, and the book includes interview material that didn’t make it to the final cut of the film. Below is my account of the premiere, at the El Capitan theater in Hollywood, October 1999.
Although the story of Ub Iwerks is not an obscure one, it has always deserved a proper retelling. Iwerks has repeatedly been recognized as the one truly indispensible man behind the success of Walt Disney’s fledgling studio, yet somehow few people feel like they “know” who Iwerks really was. He avoided the spotlight. He was a tinkerer, not a showman. Even when he ran his own studio, he preferred workman-like endeavors that might be done alone in quiet. He was a prodigious animator who drew better than his business partner Walt, drew faster than any animator on either coast, and yet spent most of his life working not as an animator but as a film engineer.
The director of this film, Leslie Iwerks, is Ub’s granddaughter. She was too young when Ub died to ever have known him, and perhaps her own desire to understand her grandfather gives this film some urgency. Despite her relation, this is an uncloying documentary that is able to recognize Ub’s greatest drawbacks– his idiosyncratic humor and the failure of his creative vision to ever invent, or be capable of inventing, his own popular cartoon characters.
However, the strangeness of Ub’s cartoons makes for some great moments in this documentary, a sort of celebration of pre-Hays Code audacity. In fact, the film’s score actually brightens some of the cartoon clips far better than the original soundtracks did. And it becomes clear that what worked for Mickey in the late 1920s (there was a small window of opportunity at the birth of sound film for Ub’s humor to be wholly compatible with the public’s taste) would no longer work for Flip the Frog in the 1930s.
Leslie’s directorial debut is an impressive one. She has gathered lots of excellent clips and manages to make an engaging narrative of this quiet pioneer’s life. Ub is remembered for what he did, not what he said, and throughout the film we hardly ever find evidence of Ub actually speaking, or writing. The notable exception, his 1963 Academy Award acceptance speech, is humorous for its brevity; he says, “My sincere thanks” and exits the stage. By this point in the film, we are actually craving to hear his voice.
His personality is mostly articulated through photos, silent clips, film work, and revealing moments, like the anecdote that he stopped bowling the moment he rolled a perfect 300, feeling he had mastered the sport, then moved on to other recreational goals. Others fill in for Ub’s silence. Two commentators seem to provide the majority of the observations: Leonard Maltin and animator Mark Kausler. Their comments are astute, especially Kausler’s remarks on why Iwerks would have felt so creatively undermined by Disney’s changing of his film timing. Others we hear from include Roy Disney, Joe Adamson, Russell Merritt, Dave Smith, John Lasseter, Richard Edlund, Chuck Jones, and Don Iwerks. Leslie’s own observations are narrated by actor Kelsey Grammer.
One of the most newsworthy and heartening aspects of this film, though, is the Disney Company’s embrace of it. In previous years, it would have been impossible to imagine the studio acknowledging that “the hand behind the mouse” would be anyone besides Walt himself. Surely two individuals must be credited with this loosening of policy: firstly, Theodore Thomas, whose film “Frank and Ollie” finally convinced Disney chieftains that the charming publicity of such documentaries could not possibly tarnish the Disney luster; and most importantly, Roy Disney, who almost single-handedly greenlit this picture, giving Leslie Iwerks the privilege to tap the vast resources of the Disney archives.
The screening I attended at the El Capitan premiere was even a bit star-studded: Marc Davis, Ed Friedman, Virginia Davis, and other Disney luminaries. At one point, Roy Disney humbly took a seat at the side of the theater, right next to me. I was surprised by this, especially since a bloc of seats had been roped off in the center section. I started doubting that this man actually was Roy Disney, quietly sitting by himself, no entourage, just wanting to see the movie. Surely such a ranking executive of the Disney Company and the nephew of Uncle Walt could at least assume that the reserved seating was for him! Then a woman walked over and seemed equally surprised, stating “Roy, you’re sitting over there.” He obliged, moving to his assigned seat.
That Roy would be so unassuming is kind of endearing. That he did such a favor for the family of Ub Iwerks is downright touching. It’s nice to think that amid the sprawling bureacracy of Disney today, that at least some very small part of it can still come off like a family business that remembers a favor once done many years ago.
MY LIFE AS A 10-YEAR-OLD BOY, by Nancy Cartwright, with a foreword by Dan Castellaneta, hardcover, 271 pages, 16 pages of b&w photographs.
The inspired casting of the voice artists on The Simpsons has been an enormous contribution to that show’s success. It made bona fide celebrities out of the entire unseen cast to a degree that is unparalleled in television animation. Yet the popularity of Bart Simpson quickly made Nancy Cartwright the breakout performance in the early seasons, and afforded her the appearance as the star of the show, even though others in the ensemble have since found greater fame in other roles. Cartwright’s claim to fame remains the voice of Bart, and hence the title of her book, MY LIFE AS A 10-YEAR OLD BOY.
Her enthusiasm for the role has always been hi-octane. Anyone driving the Los Angeles freeways in the 1990s probably remembers seeing Nancy buzz by in her bright yellow Nissan with vanity plates (“ELBARTO”) and big Simpsons decals, proclaiming herself in over-the-top fashion. She loves the attention and is devoted to her fans. Because of the legions of Simpsons faithful and because the show is surely now most of the way through its run, this book is certainly justified coming out before the end of the series.
The book starts out promising. The early pages tell how one of the greatest of cartoon voice talents, Daws Butler, generously mentored young Nancy. This section is heartwarming and will be inspirational (and informational) reading for anyone who aspires to work professionally in this capacity. As well, Simpsons fans will get a firsthand account of the now legendary Simpsons anecdote of how Cartwright was supposed to audition for the role of Lisa, but instead brashly pursued and won the role of Bart.
However, her observations of her life as Bart, which represent the majority of this book, quickly become disappointing. Cartwright handles this memoir as a theatrical monologue, constantly using an interior voice to narrate her private reactions and fantasies to the unfolding events that catapult her to stardom. The word “Omygod!” appears a lot. While it’s quaint and endearing that she never feels like she’s the equal of other stars, the obligatory fawning over every perceived “real” star always becomes a distraction from some legitimately interesting anecdotes.
The other big disappointment to Simpsons fans will be the revelation of just how few guest stars she ever does meet and work with. Very few, especially relative to how many guest stars the allure of Springfield has attracted, as they are typically recorded in separate sessions. The voice, or rather voices, of Nancy Cartwright make for a very chatty sort of narration, and one chapter is completely a fantasy sequence. It’s not for everyone, but I suppose diehard Simpsons fans might forgive this to get her behind-the-scenes perspective of one of the world’s most beloved shows.
ALEXEIEFF: ITINÉRAIRE D’UN MAÎTRE – ITINERARY OF A MASTER edited by Giannalberto Bendazzi, anthology of articles on Alexandre Alexeieff by various international authors, published by Dreamland in conjunction with the Annecy Festival, 318 pages, bilingual in French and English, softcover, b&w illustrations with 16 color pages.
Anthologies often don’t offer the best insights into a subject. The various authors’ viewpoints can give disjointed perspectives that don’t work toward a presentation greater than its parts. As well, gaps are usually present in the collective material that don’t get addressed. For these reasons, I was not entirely optimistic that the anthologized biography of Alexandre Alexeieff would be anything more than the usual array of good and bad essays. Fortunately, ALEXEIEFF: ITINÉRAIRE D’UN MAÎTRE is a very thorough treatment by very appropriate writers.
Renowned animation historian Giannalberto Bendazzi is the editor of this collection, and he has done an outstanding job coordinating these authors in a massive bi-lingual effort to create a comprehensive book on Alexeieff. It contains both personal accounts, historical accounts, and critical analyses of his filmwork. Alexeieff was a visual stylist who, along with his wife and creative partner, Claire Parker, brought his artistry as an engraver to film with the invention of the pinscreen. Later on, he also developed a system of staggered camera exposures which he called stroboscopic totalisations. Using these techniques, he remained active for several decades as an experimental animator.
Admittedly, I’m not a huge fan of Alexeieff’s films. I’ve always preferred films by such peers of his as Fischinger and McLaren, but I recognize the achievement that the pinscreen was in its time, and I greatly admire his compositions. The pinscreen simply is a difficult medium for animation. As one writer, Nikolai Izvolov of the Moscow Film Research Institute, points out in one essay, his techniques are now likened to the digital process of morphing, and offers that “we can consider Alexeieff as the precursor of the current animated techniques using software.” One interesting notion is that Alexeieff worked within units of screen pixels, a familiar constraint to any digital artist, thereby making a case that he was in fact the first digital animator.
Alexeieff did not create a huge body of work as measured in footage, but his work was influential. He maintained a career doing commercial work, such as advertisement films for corporate clients and even the prologue and epilogue to Orson Welles’ The Trial. In one of the more remarkable essays in the book, Dominique Willoughby places him within the “cinematic avant-garde” movement that took shape in the 1920’s, the first time that cinema arts were influencing other media.
At this earliest point in his career, Alexeieff was a Russian emigre living in Paris. Through the patronage of an affluent young American, Claire Parker, he was able overcome recent setbacks and boldly embark on the creation of the first pinscreen film, “Night On Bald Mountain.” It was well received, and the affair between the married mentor and his younger patron/student became a lifelong companionship. She eventually became his second wife.
The story of Alexeieff is fascinating. He was in many ways a grim and uncompromising man who can either be detested or admired. He was a talented and visionary artist who remained inspired by the Russia of his childhood, yet he never returned to visit. He had the mechanical ingenuity to invent the pinscreen, yet few would willingly choose it as a medium in which to animate. And it seems certain that without the collaboration of Claire Parker, none of his innovations in film would have taken shape, yet she bears little “official” credit.
These collected essays are quite compelling in the manner in which they slowly reveal the life and work of Alexeieff. After analyses of his films by writers such as Youri Norstein, Michéle Reverdy and Robin Allan begin to spark questions about who exactly this man was, the book unearths more and more personal information until a full picture comes into view. The presentation is not so much chronological as it is by distance from the source — first his art, which he created for any to see, and then his career, and then revealing the individual and those nearest to him, and then his secrets.
Bendazzi writes the introduction to this book, and then presents the work of fourteen other writers. Cecile Starr contributes an important section on Parker herself. As well, Alexeieff’s daughter and grandson provide their recollections, and an appendix contains copies of significant correspondence, a catalogue of his engravings, a filmography, and an account of all the pinscreens that he had ever constructed. This anthology is handsomely illustrated with lots of photographs and production stills. Unless there’s a thoroughly researched biography by a single author somewhere on the horizon, this anthology will deservingly stand as a fitting and definitive tribute to Alexandre Alexeieff.
ACTING FOR ANIMATORS by Ed Hooks, published by Heinemann Drama, 125 pages and a CD-Rom, softcover, b&w illustrations by Mike Caputo.
It’s interesting that Walt Disney found so many useful lessons from watching Charlie Chaplin and the silent comics. The animators behind the Disney “revolution” recognized that for animation to reach its heights it needed to employ aspects of other similar fine arts, and acting was one of its key elements. The concept of acting has certainly been addressed in animation books, and even in excellent fashion from distinguished animator/authors such as Chuck Jones, Shamus Culhane, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, but there has never been a book devoted solely to animation acting.
In fact, there’s probably been a glaring need for it. Ed Hooks has been teaching a traveling seminar on just this topic since 1996, and has written this book based on his experience teaching “Acting for Animators.” The good news is that he has now opened the discussion in booklength format, while the bad news is that he seems to have rushed in to write a very hurried treatment, leaving a reader a bit wanting.
There is plenty to glean from his pages, as he manages to describe enough innovations and useful practices from professional acting that should be applicable to animators. For instance, his advocacy of treating every scene as a status negotiation is noteworthy, and I liked his insistence that characters must never be doing nothing, or that a conflicted character is best portrayed as shifting between strong convictions rather than being ambivalent.
There are definitely enough good bits to make ACTING FOR ANIMATORS worthwhile, especially for students (and it’s a very reasonably priced book), but it comes with the understanding that Ed Hooks is not an animator, and thus does not make that crucial leap in ultimately applying his lessons to animation. He also brings up Laban movement theory, suggesting that it might be useful to animators, without really making a case that it does have a practical use, even conceding that it is “a largely unexplored subject for both animators and actors.”
Much of the accompanying CD-Rom further illustrates Laban theory and the results that can be gotten from improvisation. As with the book, the CD-Rom stays very much in the realm of acting by actors, never really crossing the bridge to acting by cartoons. The illustrations in this book are minimal, and they don’t help to convey or underscore the acting principles that are described.
In defense of Ed Hooks, he doesn’t promise any more than he offers. He is a theater professional, and he has chosen to inform animators about acting, which he does. Yet it is hard not to notice the depth to which animation is not really represented in this book, either with character poses or by the more informed voice of someone who has both acted andanimated.
One thing, though, remains constant and true after all these years, and Hooks again affirms it: who better for animators to watch for inspiration than the comics of silent cinema. For all the innovations that make silent film seem more and more distant from contemporary filmmaking, the performances of Chaplin and others continue to be a rich example for animators. Animation acting is a topic on which many more books deserve to be written.
DISNEY’S WINNIE THE POOH: A CELEBRATION OF THE SILLY OLD BEAR by Christopher Finch, a Welcome Book from Disney Editions, 176 pages, hardcover, with lots of full-color illustrations.
It is a stroke of showmanship that the same Christopher Finch, who has for a long time been one of the Disney Company’s favored authors, should reveal his middle name to be Robin. Yes, as in Christopher RobinFinch, who has written the sanctioned Disney book on Winnie the Pooh. Finch is British, and years ago he once met his famous namesake, the realChristopher Robin, son of A.A. Milne. Such remarkable coincidence of course allows for an author’s introduction that is far more personal and enjoyable than we expect from the standard commercial picture book. It’s one of this book’s many charming aspects.
In most respects, Finch’s WINNIE THE POOH is a perfectly fitting tribute to the gentle Pooh franchise. Although Finch is a recognized historian of Disney, he has never distinguished himself as one of the studio’s better observers. His best-known work, for instance, THE ART OF WALT DISNEY, remains one of the blander texts on the studio, though the illustrations in that volume are beautiful. With POOH, he has gotten the chance to redeem himself. The text is not particularly long, but Finch gets things going with his splendid introduction and follows it with nicely written accounts of the Pooh phenomenon, from creator Milne’s original beloved stories to the continued success with them in the hands of Disney.
Among the interesting revelations are the literalness with which Milne adapted the stories of his son and his dolls, and Disney’s seeming reluctance to at first adapt Pooh to the screen, fearing too literal an adaptation. Disney gambled first on Woolie Rietherman helming the debut cartoon, entrusting him to make some changes from the source material. The series of Disney featurettes started with some mixed results, but quickly became magical. And surprisingly, given Disney’s initial mandate for change, the films grew more and more faithful to the original stories.
One of the greatest contributions, of which Finch takes note, is the star-making of Tigger by Disney animators. Of all the characters based on the Ernest H. Shepard illustrations, Tigger is the most drastically reworked, to wonderful effect. Master animator Milt Kahl can take most of the credit, animating him with “manic energy” in “Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day” (1968). This was followed by “Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too,” which vaulted Tigger into co-star status. No mention of Pooh even needed to be made in the title of the recent “The Tigger Movie” (2000).
This book strikes a nice balance between a simple, elegant text by Christopher Finch and some really nice artwork, contributed by the indispensible Dave Smith, among others. The jacket design is especially appealing, employing a clear plastic that gives the effect of a cel animation overlay. Artwork includes inspirational drawings, posters, photographs, background illustrations, animation drawings, and visual tributes to the characters. By giving plenty of recognition to the classic Pooh of Milne and Shepard, this book in no way attempts to co-opt the Hundred-Acre Wood as solely a Disney territory. And by doing so, readers remain still clearly impressed by Disney’s subtle re-invention of these characters.
SECRETS OF CLAY ANIMATION REVEALED! by Marc Spess, published by MinuteMan Press, 97 pages, softcover, b&w illustrations and 10 color pages.
This book stands out as virtually a public service, a no-nonsense practical handbook on how to create clay animation. The goal of author Marc Spess is simply to spell out the technique as simply and straight-forward as possible. He achieves this by methodically documenting all the steps, including tips and tricks. Photographs and diagrams are used to clarify the text, and plenty of examples are cited, making it accesible to beginners while remaining useful even to those who have experience with stop-motion work. Importantly, various topics are clearly marked and organized, making this a great reference work. If you want to animate with clay, the book you want at your side is SECRETS OF CLAY ANIMATION REVEALED.
Having said that, it’s also important to note that this book promotes the methods popularized by Will Vinton Productions in Portland, Oregon. The technical advice provided to the author comes mostly from animators from this studio, and the book’s illustrations are either from Vinton’s filmwork or clearly influenced by the clay-sculpted aesthetic made famous by the artists there. This is not a complaint, just an observation. If anything, the Northwest style of Vinton is a bit more “purist” than some of the animation now popular from Aardman Animations, which tends to fuse clay or silicon or plasticine heavily with other elements, creating a hybrid animation that is not entirely claymation. At its most basic, the method documented in SECRETS involves a metal armature encased in clay, photographed frame-by-frame by an animator.
Marc Spess may not write with the most fluid prose, and the book’s page layout is not particularly engaging, but this hardly matters. This is the kind of book you consult more than you actually sit down and read. It’s handy, not entertaining. Topics include texture pads, animating eyes, the mold injection process, ball-and-socket feet, clay special effects, set-building, good habits to get into, frame-grab techniques, hot glue guns, and much much more. It’s especially useful that the book includes product and vendor names and addresses whenever possible, so that animators can mail order the relevant items that they’ll need. Because Marc Spess is a clay animator, one imagines that this is the book he’d always wished he’d had when he first started in the field. Lucky for us, that book is now here, and these “secrets” are now readily available.
SECRETS OF CLAY ANIMATION REVEALED can be ordered online at AnimateClay.com, and is available in different formats at scaled prices. Marc is offering it as a downloaded e-book for only $11 or as a published softcover for $24.99. He’s also offering a signed copy for a dollar more, or a signed copy plus e-book bundle for $30.99.
THE MOOSE THAT ROARED: THE STORY OF JAY WARD, BILL SCOTT, A FLYING SQUIRREL, AND A TALKING MOOSE by Keith Scott, published by St. Martin’s Press, 431 pages, hardcover, with b&w illustrations.
The story behind this book is as inspirational as any cartoon fan can imagine. A long time ago, Keith Scott, still just a kid growing up in Australia, became a maniac fan of the Jay Ward cartoons, especially Rocky and Bullwinkle. His first act of fandom was simply to watch the cartoons repeatedly and then to memorize the names on the credits. This escalated to his writing fan mail to his heroes, and to his delight (and his amazement– these people were “real”), he later received hand-written replies from the likes of Bill Scott, Paul Frees and Daws Butler.
His enthusiasm and his contact with these men eventually led to work in the field, first at Hanna-Barbera’s Australian studio, and ultimately to becoming an official voice for the Jay Ward characters. The greatest thrill had to be reprising the voice of Bullwinkle opposite voice legend June Foray, stepping into the big shoes of the late Bill Scott, who coincidentally shares Keith’s surname but is not related. Who better, in fact, to continue the tradition of Bullwinkle than one of the Moose’s greatest fans, a man who can do a perfect impersonation not only because he’s talented but because he’s watched the Ward cartoons hundreds of times!
Which makes Keith Scott the perfect author for the definitive book on the Jay Ward studio. Amazingly, Bill Scott even mentioned to Keith that he ought to write the book, and this was back in 1972. When Keith finally seriously started writing it, around 1990, he discovered that this was harder than he’d imagined. While his years of research and interviews had paid off with a goldmine of data and studio anecdotes, he found that publication rights were a tricky slope to navigate.
Ramona Ward, Jay’s widow, named him the author of choice in 1991, after picking his proposal from among four competitive submissions. However, following the Buena Vista video release of Ward’s cartoons that same year, the climate changed. Several legal challenges erupted (the Ward studio had survived many legal battles in the predatory arena of television distribution over the years, and the success of the Bullwinkle re-release brought up some old contenders), and although the Ward estate eventually won them all, it became clear that a printing of the book would be a delicate matter.
As well, MCA Publishing then wanted to do a simpler picture type book, and perhaps it now seemed like Keith’s full treatment of the studio history, which gave mention to some of the litigants, was a bit indelicate. The fallout was that in June 1992, Keith found out that he was denied copyright illustrations for any of the cartoon characters, a kiss of death for a book about animation. He thought about releasing it as a non-pictorial book with McFarland, but then decided to wait and see.
Despite setbacks, 1992 was in many ways a charmed year for him, as that’s when he was named the official voices of the Ward menagerie, leading to eventual work on the “George of the Jungle” and “Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle” feature films. He continued to be involved with voicework assignments, in effect becoming Bullwinkle, while a separate book project went forward on which he was not involved.
This project eventually took shape as Louis Chunovic’s THE ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE BOOK, published by Bantam in 1996. While in many respects it was a nice picture book, it did a disservice to many fans by running fast and loose with the facts. Charles Ulrich, editor of the fanzine Frostbite Falls Far-Flung Flyer, wrote a blistering review of it, pointing out its scads of factual errors. To many cartoon fans, it was endemic of a problem we often find in animation books.
Fortunately, however, Keith Scott’s project is now also a book. With enough time having passed to distance it as a competitor to Chunovic’s, Tiffany Ward and Universal both finally granted picture rights to him. The result is THE MOOSE THAT ROARED, a comprehensive 400+ page book on the history and the people behind the legendary Jay Ward Productions. It covers the lives of the principal figures, the development of the TV shows, the infamous publicity stunts and parties, and even the Ward legal troubles.
Owing to its subject, it’s frequently very amusing to read. But it’s also a history fraught with tragedy, and eventually a reader understands why Jay Ward gladly bowed out of television production after a turbulent and relatively successful run of it, primarily in the 1960’s. After enjoying a lucrative contract with the Quaker Oats Company making animated cereal commercials, Jay began to scale back his studio operations and then lived long enough to witness the resurgence of fan interest in Bullwinkle. He led an alternately charmed and cursed life, but never a dull one.
This book is also notable because the early history of TV animation (both for series broadcast and for commercials) is not yet well covered in books. Another good book which does cover this ground is Shamus Culhane’s classic TALKING ANIMALS AND OTHER PEOPLE, also published by St. Martin’s. Not coincidentally, Culhane gets some mention in THE MOOSE THAT ROARED, and this book certainly validates Culhane’s many complaints in regards to what a vicious snakepit television production was in the 50’s and 60’s.
Though St. Martin’s Press is not a frequent publisher of animation history, it certainly now has an admirable track record. They aren’t afraid to publish animation books that are smart, and hopefully fans will reward them with good sales. Keith Scott has not only written a distinguished book, he has also turned into quite a Cinderella story himself. Who would have believed back in 1962 that a tiny Bullwinkle fan watching TV in Australia could do so much for the legacy of Jay Ward? Bullwinkle, you couldn’t be in better hands.
DINOSAUR: THE EVOLUTION OF AN ANIMATED FEATURE by Jeff Kurti, published by Hyperion, 128 pages, softcover, lots of full color illustrations.
The good news about DINOSAUR is that the text is fairly informative about this film’s unusually long development period. Believe it or not, this feature had been kicking around in one form or another since the late 1980’s. The bad news is that by finally being released in 2000, “Dinosaur” is hardly the spectacle it once might have been, which is as problematic for the book as it is for the film. Quite simply, the final visual effects are no longer that groundbreaking, and the “magic” of CGI is not much of a story any more.
On the encouraging side, this particular Disney “Art of” book has more production coverage and interviews with the creative team than we usually see, and the ample artwork is in keeping with Hyperion’s high standards. As well, this book is softcover, so it costs a bit less (US$35 instead of $50+), though the paper quality remains very good. There’s all sorts of illustrations: storyboards, pre-vis 3D work, screen shots, color keys, and on-location photos.
The biggest problem, again, is the film itself. Because its artistic imperative was to look “real” it has no distinctive style that begs for artists or fans to study the book’s pictures. In fact, most of the film’s backgrounds are live action footage, and the intent of the film was that it should seem like a live action motion picture. There’s some interesting detailed sketches of dinosaur musculature employed for the 3D modeling, but it’s not the sort of thing that sets this book apart. “Realism,” it turns out, isn’t half as fun to look at as a good cartoon.
CHICKEN RUN: HATCHING THE MOVIE by Brian Sibley, published by Abrams, 191 pages, hardcover, 620 illustrations, 430 in full color.
Reading through this handsome companion book to the film, a reader might surely cement an opinion that Nick Park is some sort of modern Ub Iwerks. We’ve seen Park’s obsession with gadgetry in his three “Wallace and Gromit” films, and this debut feature from Aardman, which he co-directed, is filled with yet more mechanical contraptions. Though this book states that Park and Peter Lord were mostly inspired by the work of William Heath Robinson, a British cartoonist in the vein of Rube Goldberg, one does imagine a correlation between working with gadgets all day, and then placing inventions prominently within the animated narrative.
CHICKEN RUN is a particularly good companion book because it allows a closer look at the Aardman gadgets. Also, it benefits from not looking like every other animated feature in recent memory, making the book a nice departure, at least for the moment. For one, the miniature sets are great fun to look at in photographs, and there’s lots of amusing details to study that a film viewing doesn’t easily allow. Also, the revealing look at the plasticine and silicon characters is fascinating, even for anyone who knows how stop-frame animation works. It’s just that the Aardman studio is so clever, and it’s a real treat to take a visual tour of both their workshop and the making of this crowd-pleasing movie.
As this book is made available through the efforts of Dreamworks publicity, there’s no chance to expect any revelations about production conflicts or even any deeper writing about the movie. But this book doesn’t necessarily warrant that, and its strength lies with its numerous illustrations. Despite this, Brian Sibley’s text is efficient and informative. Also, it’s appropriately British, employing words like “whilst” throughout. Sibley is, after all, an English author writing about an English studio, so it gives his words a certain warmth. Yet the ultimate litmus test for this sort of book is how much a reader enjoyed the film, and thanks to good page layout and ample production materials, CHICKEN RUN: HATCHING THE MOVIE lets fans revisit the charm of this inventive feature from Aardman Animations.
BEATLETOONS: THE REAL STORY BEHIND THE CARTOON BEATLES by Mitchell Axelrod, published by Wynn Publishing, 206 pages, softcover, b&w illustrations, 8 color pages.
It’s not exactly a milestone show in TV animation, but by virtue of its tie-in with the Beatles, one of the biggest pop phenomena of the 20th century, there will always be fan interest in the Beatles cartoon which ran for 3 seasons on ABC, beginning in 1965. In fact, author Mitchell Axelrod has written a very entertaining book, and the first serious look at the creation and influence of this show. Although its impact was, of course, marginal in comparison to the real Beatles, and although “Yellow Submarine” will always remain the BeatleToon that people best remember, this show did manage to leave its mark.
It’s worth noting that “The Beatles” spawned variety musical shows like “The Jackson Five” and “The Brady Kids,” as well as cartoons like “Josie and the Pussycats.” Also, it was the first successful cartoon that featured characters who were real people. As dreadful a legacy as this may be (remember the Saturday morning Mr. T cartoon?), this was a commercial concept that was finally validated with the success of this show.
One of the highlights of this book are the reactions of John, Paul, George and Ringo to the cartoon versions of themselves. It’s pretty funny to know that Paul could do an imitation of the squeaky Americanized voice lent to him by actor Lance Percival. All the Beatles’ voices were performed by Americans, without even approximating what they sounded like, because studio execs figured that kids couldn’t understand the Liverpool accents. One result of this decision was that the show was not shown in England, despite the explosive reception by U.S. audiences, enough to garner a 51 Nielson share on its Saturday morning debut.
A bizarre charm of “The Beatles” is its tongue-in-cheek interpretations of the group’s lyrics. For instance, the episode “I Want to Hold Your Hand” is about the Fab Four meeting a lovesick octopus, and “I’ve Just Seen a Face” takes place in a haunted house. Axelrod does a nice job providing a catalogue of all the shows, including credits, synopses, and points of interest to watch out for (did you know, the Popeye character Sweetpea makes an appearance in “Tell Me What You See”). This part of the book is very handy and a lot of fun to read. In fact, the author interviewed quite a number of people to gather the full story, and it’s filled with plenty of anecdotes.
“The Beatles” was in production simultaneously in London, Australia, Canada and Holland, no doubt making the research for this book a bit difficult, but Axelrod follows all the threads of the story, reporting on how well or, more often, how badly production proceeded in each of these locales. One of the running jokes in this book is how poorly some of the animation turned out, especially the shows made in Vancouver and Sydney.
An interesting denial comes from the series’ creator, Al Brodax. He actually rejects that the film “Yellow Submarine” was originally based on the TV series or its character designs, but Axelrod makes the case against this, citing conflicting sources. Director Jack Stokes, for instance, says that King Features saw an opportunity to carry the show’s success to the big screen, and it was only later that the Beatles’ designs were changed to “reflect the times.” Much of the London animation staff worked on both the show and the feature, and the third season’s episodes began to experiment with psychedelia. The likelihood weighs heavily to one conclusion: the show begat the movie.
This book offers the full set of Peter Sanders model sheets, as well as lots of reproductions of layouts, scripts, storyboards, screen shots and photographs. The quality of these reproductions varies widely, many having a xeroxed look, and the text is rather big, making BEATLETOONS sometimes look as much like a fanzine as a book. Also, the publisher specializes in pop music books, not animation, so cartoon fans might notice a few minor errors. The two I noticed were a misspelling of Joe Barbera, and a statement that “George Dunning had worked for the National Film Board of Canada and then worked for Norman McLaren at U.P.A. studios” Not true, he worked for McLaren at the Film Board.
Outside of this, and reading past some basic explanations of animation technique that assumes no previous knowledge of the craft, cartoon fans can be assured that the research for this is actually solid. It’s certainly worthwhile reading, and it opens a door on a mostly forgotten chapter of cartoon history. BEATLETOONS is not widely available in bookstores, so be sure to order your copy via the web if you can’t find it at your local shops, or go to the BeatleToons site. It’s not by any stretch an indispensable book for cartoon fans, but if you happen to also be a Beatles fan, then you’ll surely enjoy reading it.
FANTASIA / 2000: VISIONS OF HOPE and WALT DISNEY’S FANTASIA (NEW RE-ISSUE FOR 2000) by John Culhane, published by Hyperion Press, 240 and 222 pages respectively, hardcover, lots of full color illustrations.
Inspirational artwork that is supremely good has a way of evoking a singular vision that cannot be expected to be fully realized on film. The films FANTASIA, both of them, are exceedingly ambitious. It is small wonder that in parts they fail, but it is with the benefit of the books of John Culhane that we can see how they might have soared. Take, for instance, Kay Nielsen’s sketches for the gothic procession during “Ave Maria,” and then watch the animated sequence that resulted. Not even close.
Nonetheless, the original Fantasia is an acknowledged classic, even if few critics think it’s a consistent work. The notion of Fantasia excites people, though. James Levine leaped at the chance to be the new Stokowski. Disney animators begged to work on the “sequel.” A vast pool of talent was once again assembled for FANTASIA/2000, and author John Culhane must have been elated when Roy Disney granted him his wish to be the official chronicler of the new endeavor, all the way back in 1992!
Yet once again, after all that money and all this time, FANTASIA disappoints. Only far more so than the original. Oddly, F/2000 embraces computer animation in a manner that suggests it should be as mind-blowing as, say, Fantasound in 1940. Since quite a few of the production decisions were made in the early 1990s, it might have once seemed revolutionary to lean on CG for visual splendor, but that day has passed. The 3D whales during “Pines of Rome” and later the Jack-in-the-box come off as simply creepy. If certain sequences had to be 3D, why couldn’t the Disney directors just commit to it instead of noodling with an unsettling 2D/3D hybrid? The gentle “Steadfast Tin Soldier” has so much promise, but in the end we’re left wishing that the Pixar team had done it instead (and in some ways perhaps they have, considering the similar themes of both this and Toy Story). And based on the storyboards we see in Culhane’s book, there was a lot more story left on the boards that never got to enrich this segment.
The two great highlights of F/2000 are “Rhapsody in Blue” and “The Carnival of the Animals,” the latter an admittedly short but entertaining bit. Not coincidentally, I suppose, these were both directed (and animated, in good part) by Eric Goldberg, a standout talent who makes these sequences fly with some virtuoso animation, as well as appropriate visual and musical balance. The Donald Duck number is ambushed by the dreadful choice of “Pomp and Circumstance,” apparently chosen by Michael Eisner himself, and a weak story that doesn’t take advantage of Donald’s character. It comes off even weaker with its back-to-back pairing with the perfectly executed “Sorceror’s Apprentice,” the only holdover from the original film.
I have always enjoyed John Culhane’s WALT DISNEY’S FANTASIA, and I especially think that the most recent incarnation of his book has a sleek-looking cover (Mickey against black, a lot nicer than the previous blue cover). Most of all, it has a great story to tell, and who would dispute that Fantasia was anything but a bold and daring move by Walt? Culhane also benefited from publishing this in 1983, offering him a little perspective and a comfortable bit of remove from a film that was released decades previous, allowing him to comment on the film’s enduring cult status. Importantly, despite having lots of illustrations, the text remains as the centerpiece of the book.
This cannot be said for FANTASIA/2000: VISIONS OF HOPE. While the inspirational art is wonderful, the text has become an extension of Disney publicity. There is no longer a particularly strong story to tell (the Imax story pales against the sheer gamble that Walt’s original film proved to be) and the book’s fawning lack of objectivity is built out of endless quotes from the film’s principals. Furthermore, the book is more pretentious than the film. It only comes in one prestige boxed edition, priced prohibitively at $75. It’s sheer eye-candy for only the most diehard fans. I’ll always prefer the original (film, and book) and everyone will prefer the price: the re-issue is only $19.95, hardcover.
CARTOON CAPERS: THE HISTORY OF CANADIAN ANIMATORS by Karen Mazurkewich, published by McArthur and Company, 308 pages, softcover, hundreds of b&w illustrations and photos, and 16 color pages of stills and cels from Canadian cartoons.
There has long been a North American debate as to why so many of America’s best comedians seem to disproportionately come from up North. Can this same argument be made for animators? Well, probably not, but Canada surely has a rich animation heritage to be proud of. Karen Mazurkewich’s highly readable new book, CARTOON CAPERS, casts a very wide net, inclusive of all things Canadian in cartoondom, regardless of how deep the affiliation may be.
Her coverage of Canadian animation moves at first chronologically, then geographically, then by topic, by individual and then ends with a treatment of digital animation. It’s a loose structure that can cause problems. For instance, because Caroline Leaf or Wendy Tilby get tucked (albeit prominently) into a chapter on women animators, it can be perceived that they are getting sleighted in not having their own separate entries as auteurs, into which only male animators are classified. Although this is not intentional, it is a by-product of a book which has to make sense of so many genres and topics which might not ordinarily be grouped together. The umbrella concept of “Canada” does not allow for a neat ordering of all these disparate elements, but in the end the presentation of all this material actually comes off quite nicely.
What succeeds in CARTOON CAPERS is its general interest approach to these widely appealing topics, and whatever the book may lack in depth of analysis, it clearly makes up for with its heaping amounts of information. Among its 300+ pages are chapters that cover the NFB, Marv Newland, the Manitoba style, Nelvana, Norman McLaren, Radio-Canada, Heavy Metal, Canadians who are Walt Disney animators, The Cat Came Back, and the influence of SoftImage, among so much else. This book is an excellent general resource, including lots of great illustrations, though mostly black & white. Hardly a page goes by that doesn’t have at least two pictures on it. The layout and design by Bill Stewart adds immeasurably to its appeal and usefulness.
Two chapters, one on Richard Williams and one on John Kricfalusi, are perhaps dubiously Canadian. While no one disputes the significance of each artist, each has spent his professional life well outside the orbit of Canada. The author even confesses that John K. “attaches little importance to his Canadian roots or Sheridan education.” Nonetheless, the spirit and reputations of both men seem so similar that one imagines that being a maverick is a little bit “Canadian.” Karen Mazurkewich suggests exactly this in her discussions of some others as well, like McLaren, Newland, and Richard Condie. In any case, both these chapters are quite good, so I don’t imagine there will be much protest as to their inclusion, though some might wish the page space afforded these men was shared a little more equitably with others. Figures like Frèdèric Back, for instance, receive only four pages to Williams’ twenty.
Another aspect of the book which is slightly bothersome is the author’s tendency to lighten up the text with clichès, such as the book’s opening line: “Once upon a time in a far away land – a place of snow and ice – there lived a middle-aged man named Charlie.” Although sentences like these are often signposts of a publicist’s disregard for facts, it seems here that this is just a stylistic quirk of an author who’s done an otherwise commendable job of researching her topic. However, sometimes it makes for statements that remain unsubstantiated: “[Richard Williams] was a superb draftsman and the fastest draw in the Western hemisphere.”
CARTOON CAPERS is one of those books that should have been published years ago. Canadian animation has been held in high regard for decades, and Karen Mazurkewich has written an entertaining and reliable account of these contributions that deserves an audience outside Canada. Especially delightful is the cover illustration by Cordell Baker, which features some recognizable characters and which perfectly captures the pleasant, efficient pace of the text. There’s still plenty of room for someone to write a detailed account of NFB animation, but for this book’s intended purpose, CAPERS is pretty much what we’d hoped for.
WALT DISNEY AND EUROPE: EUROPEAN INFLUENCES ON THE ANIMATED FEATURE FILMS OF WALT DISNEY by Robin Allan, published by the Indiana University Press in the United States, and by John Libbey & Company in all other territories, 304 pages, softcover and hardcover, amply illustrated with color and b&w illustrations.
One of the most recurring criticisms that I’ve seen in recent reviews of animation books, whether appropriate or not, is that authors don’t reveal enough about the cultural influences that affected Golden Age animation. At least we can rest assured that no one will accuse Robin Allan of this in his fine new book, WALT DISNEY AND EUROPE. It’s entirely about what did influence Disney and his animators. The period covered includes features made during Walt’s lifetime, SNOW WHITE through THE JUNGLE BOOK, though in truth it’s the classic period, 1937-1942, that absorbs much of this book’s inquiry.
Since Robin Allan is English, and seeing as he grew up under the influence of Disney “magic” (the author offers his own boyhood perspectives on seeing these classic features many years ago in British movie theaters), he has an excellent vantage point from which to study the way in which the Disney studio borrowed heavily from European artistic and literary tradition to create a uniquely American experience: the Disney fairy tale.
Of course the topic of the book seems obvious– it doesn’t take a PhD to realize that the Disney features, often set in Europe, are thereby influenced by Europe (though Dr. Allan has his PhD, just in case!). However, the book probes quite a bit deeper, unearthing specific European artists that directly influenced the Disney studio artists, and finds broader strokes that reveal something about the American psyche: New World vs. Old World and the American notion of Europe as a conceit, not a place.
It seems ironic at first that Allan devotes so many pages not to Europe, but rather to a discussion of Disney’s “home town”: Marceline, Missouri.Although Disney spent only four years of his youth in this idyllic farm-town, in contrast to the remainder which was spent in big cities, Marceline grew as mythic in his imagination as Europe seemed to him in the books he read. When years later, Disneyland was constructed, it was composed of these two poles of his imagination: rural Americana and Teutonic fantasy. With the exception of DUMBO, though, it is the traditions of Europe that win out as the outward influence on his classic filmwork.
Two films, really, are so appropriate to this American/European duality that it’s no wonder that Allan reaches his greatest moments discussing them: PINOCCHIO, the dark masterpiece that finds an American puppet fathered by a well-meaning Italian who lives in a Germanic city; and FANTASIA, the attempt to bring European high art “to the masses” in the guise of a cartoon. It’s no wonder that at times both of these films seem schizophrenic. Reading through Allan’s dissection of them can be quite a treat.
Another remarkable chapter in the book is devoted to “The Experimental Forties.” Allan suggests that as much as WWII disrupted Disney’s powerful source of revenue from Europe, ending the initial surge of costly animated features with BAMBI, it was the government war contracts that in effect saved the studio from the fickle fate of box office chemistry. With a consistent flow of work that was not dependent on whether films performed well, Disney had time, at last, to regroup his studio and to stabilize the revenue rollercoaster that had threatened his studio since the late 1930s. While Allan is not the first to support this claim, his discussion of it is perhaps the best I’ve ever read on the topic. The 40s are remembered as a period of stylistic experimentation, born of necessity, that led to innovations beyond the walls of Disney, a period which offered some fascinating diversions like MAKE MINE MUSIC.
The ultimate triumph of Disney is that Grimm’s fairy tales are now almost universally seen through the prism of Disneyfication. Europe, as filtered through Disney, now impacts how Europe sees itself. What does it mean that Euro Disney, once decried as a critical and commercial failure, is now wildly successful? What does it mean that Germans are travelling hundreds of miles into France to see the artifice of Cinderella’s Magic Castle, itself an imitation of a German castle?
Allan does not ultimately pretend to have all the answers for the Disney appeal, or to completely understand Disney the man, but he does clearly trace the influence of Europe on a group of artists and animators, mostly Americans, who endeavored to make movies that looked and seemed like Old World classics, yet were hopelessly fueled with New World optimism. The rest, as they say, was history.
Beyond Allan’s writing, this book is noteworthy for its lavish illustrations. The influence of European artists is made nowhere quite so clear as by placing them next to the work of the Disney artists. Much of the Disney work is previously unpublished, and the interleafed European art is as inspirational to readers today as it must have been to the studio artists in the 30s and 40s. Despite being as decorative as most coffee-table volumes, WALT DISNEY AND EUROPE is a decidedly scholarly work: endnotes, careful analyses, and great pictures to boot.
Robin Allan has written a very good book that offers us yet more historical insight into a topic that cartoon fans continue to relish: Disney in the Golden Age. It’s a valuable addition to animation studies, and it’s the result of many years of impeccable research by a well-known figure in the field. As a bonus, an appendix offers readers a glimpse at proposed sequences of FANTASIA that were never made. And a second appendix lists proposed features based on European sources, also never made. The one that got away: Walt Disney Presents ECHO AND NARCISSUS! Not to mention DONALD MUNCHAUSEN!
HAYAO MIYAZAKI: MASTER OF JAPANESE ANIMATION by Helen McCarthy, published by Stone Bridge Press, 239 pages, softcover with b&w illustrations and 8 pages color inserts.
HAYAO MIYAZAKI: MASTER OF ANIMATION is a welcome new book by Helen McCarthy which thankfully contributes to the recognition, outside Asia, of this accomplished Japanese director. In the author’s preface, she asks us to regard her book as “Miyazaki 101” and hopes that “it will be the first of many.” Given this, the book succeeds, but once American fans become more familiar with Miyazaki, a richer book of greater depth will have to take its place. The demands on contemporary Disney scholars, for instance, is huge considering the maturation of the field, but McCarthy has the privilege of being the first Western author to stake claim to a booklength treatment of Hayao Miyazaki before the bar has been raised.
I had hoped for a longer biography of the man, but instead only got 17 pages which sum up his life’s work. The majority of the book breaks down the films he’s directed. Each chapter covers one film, which McCarthy handles by sorting them into 5 sections: origins, art and technique, the characters, the story, and commentary. This predictable structure makes the book more useful as a reference work than a “revealing” work. Some additional biographical material does get sifted in as she covers each film, most of it very interesting.
The book spends lots of pages actually spelling out the plot details and characters at a basic level, and this is done well. This would seem unforgiveable (spoilers!), but given the state of bootleg videos of Miyazaki in the West, it makes sense. When I first saw a bootleg, without subtitles, of Princess Mononoke, I couldn’t pretend to understand the film, but I was amazed at its epic sweep and its great visuals. Only after a friend lent me the narrative he’d downloaded from a website did I then “get” the film after a second and third viewing.
McCarthy’s book is a wonderful compendium for non-subtitled or undubbed viewings, even if this isn’t her intent. She doesn’t necessarily endorse watching it in Japanese and then reading it in English. In fact, she provides updates as best she can on the Disney plans to dub each film for easier viewing by English-speaking audiences. Disney has exclusive rights to the U.S. release of Studio Ghibli films, and is fortunately contractually bound to not re-edit them.
This book is a nice first step. A greater general awareness of Miyazaki in the West is rapidly growing, and McCarthy’s work will likely ride this crest of rising interest. It is an amazing thing to be an adult and to suddenly discover the animated features of Hayao Miyazaki. It is truly shocking that such masterworks have resisted the attention of the West for such a long time. To anyone who’s seen the films of Miyazaki, this book will prove very useful and interesting. And McCarthy’s hopes will surely come true. Like Joe Adamson cracking open the door on Tex Avery with KING OF CARTOONS in 1975, she’s doing the same for Miyazaki with MASTER OF JAPANESE ANIMATION today. The first of many books.
HOLLYWOOD CARTOONS: AMERICAN ANIMATION IN ITS GOLDEN AGE, by Michael Barrier, published by Oxford University Press, hardcover, 648 pages, some b&w illustrations.
The rumors of this book have been making the rounds for years. Actually, decades. It’s hard to believe that the research for HOLLYWOOD CARTOONS has been ongoing for the last quarter-century. Many a researcher has conducted an interview with a veteran animator from the Golden Age, only to have the animator pull out a thick transcript of a previous interview with either the author Michael Barrier or his research partner Milt Gray.
“I’ve already been asked these questions,” the old animator might say as he hands you the transcript and you glance through easily 50 typed pages of questions and answers. It is this thoroughness (Barrier and Gray would request that animators read, edit and fact-check their own recorded responses for accuracy) that makes the fruits of this research so highly anticipated. So many of the significant figures in American studio animation were carefully interviewed for this book. The resulting reams of data, over 200 interviews in all, constitute the single most exhaustive effort ever conducted to record the oral history of the Golden Age of animation.
The obvious question all these years was when would the book come out? Surely there was plenty of speculation that Michael Barrier would never finish this epic. The bulk of the research, after all, was completed in the 70s and 80s, so people were beginning to wonder.
I ran into Milt Gray at an ASIFA event about a year ago, and he told me that, in fact, Barrier’s manuscript had been turned in to the Oxford Press, but it was so enormous that the editors were faced with the daunting task of asking Mike to pare down the page count. Though apparently significantly trimmed, this book is still the heftiest ever published on the topic of animation.
HOLLYWOOD CARTOONS finally appeared in bookstores in April, and it has certainly been worth the wait. In fact, arriving as it has – some twenty years after much of the principal research – it’s a sort of delayed triumph. In the 1970s, enough of the animation pioneers were still alive to document the history, but few people thought that the history of cartoons had much merit. By conducting his research in the 70s, before the ranks of pioneers had too seriously thinned, and by finally publishing in the 90s, when appreciation of animation has finally matured, Barrier delivers us a delayed gift: a definitive survey history that will remain definitive.
As the book’s title makes clear, it covers only Hollywood studio animation (although some Fleischer and Van Beuren history slips in), which emerged in the late 1920s and which concluded in the 60s with the demise of theatrical cartoons. However, this Golden Age often passes for the history of American animation, so it’s safe to conclude that HOLLYWOOD CARTOONS is perceived as a general survey work.
Barrier does a nice job tracking the influences of the various studios, weaving an interconnected history of a volatile labor force of animators that moved back and forth between a handful of employers. The documentation of the 1930s concerns mostly Disney, an era of one studio’s technical and artistic advances that has profoundly shaped everything that’s come since.
Some web-reviews have declared this book too Disney-centric, which isn’t incorrect, though in Barrier’s defense it’s perfectly reasonable to examine the 30s mostly through the prism of Disney. The detailed accounts of young Disney’s zeal and creative ambitions are fascinating, and Barrier gives us keen insight into the contributions of such animators as Norm Ferguson and Fred Moore, among others.
As the book moves chronologically into the 40s, the accomplishments of Mickey’s rivals becomes the focus. MGM, Warner Bros. and UPA all get adequate treatment, though far short of the depth that Disney in the 30s receives. Barrier is unafraid to draw conclusions, and after spending years poring over his research he seems confident in his judgments. He nearly never says that an event “might have happened like this” or “perhaps like this.” Twenty-five years of mulling archives and interpreting interviews has given a certainty to this work.
This is not to say that there won’t be controversy. His analysis of Bob Clampett’s directing, for instance, is brilliant, if opinionated. Because HOLLYWOOD CARTOONS will be deservedly perceived as such a major work, it may draw detractors to some of its details. I’m sure there are plenty of readers and diehard cartoon buffs who are right now road-testing this book for any weaknesses. I’m really curious to read a good in-depth review, even a combative one if it has any teeth. I assure you, though, that this is a book of unsurpassed integrity.
It will surely serve as a focal point of discussion among animation readers for years to come. Animation-Books has the good fortune to be inaugurated on-line at this time if for no other reason than to announce the arrival in bookstores of this excellent book by Michael Barrier. Now for a wish: will anyone publish the hundreds of pages of out-takes?