Tuesday, July 31, 2007

A little home cooking

Obviously I’ve been doing a lot of studying, thinking (and too much writing!) recently about exploring different visual and motion styles for CG. (Or rather more properly “visual and motion aesthetics“- thanks to Erik for the nomenclature help). Anyhow, just to show that yapping my trap isn’t my only area of activity- here’s a little test that I cooked up this weekend. Just a little something that was fun. Maybe different?


I puttered around for about a day on it- most of that time spent trying exploring different ideas for bringing the background to play a role in accentuating the performance. I have an earlier version with a totally different method for making the background plate, but I abandoned it for being too complicated to set up. Simple is the watch word here. The character rig is a freebie rig I downloaded from HighEnd3d.com, not my own creation (Although I did apply some different shaders that I made to get a different, non-literal look for it). I expect when I start using my own rig (it’s almost done) that I’ll be able to push the animation technique a bit further with regard to deforming the shapes of the character in motion. Obviously this isn’t the end of my efforts, just a stumbling step along the path. I’m not trying to emulate any specific animation style or medium. Rather I’m trying to borrow flavors from all different kinds of sources, all rolled into a (hopefully tasty) visual recipe. That’s something that I believe that CG is uniquely positioned to do better than any other medium.

But the best part was that this was fun for me to make. Fun is the ingredient that all audiences can taste. I hope that part shows through at least.

OK, I’m gonna take break from typing for a while. Back to the kitchen!

Monday, July 30, 2007

Kevin Langley breaks down Dan Backslide

The wonderful Goobersleave blog has a fantastic post today- Kevin does some slow-motion presentation of a few Dan Backslide moments (animated by Bobe Cannon) from Chuck Jones’ seminal short The Dover Boys.

I’m always surprised when people say this is an early example of ‘limited animation’. On the contrary I’ve always thought “The Dover Boys” represented a wonderful expression of what full animation could bring to the table. There is no pretense of literalism in this film- it is utterly, fully animated. The things that are done here could only ever be done in a fully animated world. An animator employing what is typically called ‘full animation’ (let’s say a Disney animator from the same time period) would have Dan Backslide walk from the passenger side of the car and go around the car and get in and sit down in the driver’s seat in literal movements and steps. The animator would proceed based roughly on how a person might literally accomplish the same movement. The good animator would bring a sense of entertainment, music, rhythm, life, charm and expression to this. But in the end the scene would require maybe 80-100 drawings to complete (give or take). In “The Dover Boys” Bobe Cannon manages to accomplish the same action in 4 or 5 drawings. The way he does it is, in my opinion, one of the greatest expressions of full animation that has ever been done on planet earth. The solution to the challenge wasn’t to pick 5 milepost drawings out of the 80 that the full animator would use. That’s usually how limited animation has been done, often with less than inspiring results. But this- this is something altogether different. This instead is the act of taking multiple drawings and combining them into a single one that is all about perception and flow in movement. It’s a masterful expression of what it means to understand how animation functions on the atomic level.

Speaking as a teacher of animators I think we now we labor under the opposite problem- too many drawings without a clear understanding of how to make many (any?) of them meaningful. CG animators have no poverty of drawings to work with. We’ve got our rigged puppets, we have our timelines filled with a world of free inbetweens and we have our limitless inbetweened previewing capabilities at the push of a button or the scrub of a mouse. Thus equipped we happily press forward. Yet the price we pay for such modern conveniences is that we don’t think in terms of how images & drawings can express motion. Sure we pay some grudging tribute to the idea in our ‘blocking’ but then happily dive into the world of free inbetweens and endless scrubbing twiddles as soon as we possibly can. CG animators tend to discover their solutions as they go as a result of innumerable previews and tweaks over time. When every frame and drawing is given to you for free you don’t really understand the power of each one. Ours is a soft-minded way. Take away our ability to rip off 10, 20 or 30 playblast previews a day and some Cg animators would literally freeze up. When we learn that in the old days animators were lucky if they could pencil test their scenes once before turning them in we’re incredulous. Once? Seriously? Many of us can’t fathom such a way of working- and I think our own work suffers for it. A lot of animators who’ve only ever worked in the CG medium don’t understand the guts of how animation works well enough to know how to accomplish something like The Dover Boys. I know I didn’t when I first saw it and I was already a working professional! When I first tried to study this Dover Boys film it was like some kind of dark magic to me. — How could they do that? How would they even begin to know how to do that? And with pencils and no timeline to scrub around in? Surely this stuff must have taken months to make, right? What?! They did this at 15 feet per week?! No way! — These were the questions that echoed around my cranium when I first started analyzing this cartoon ‘lo these many years hence. It’s been a long journey for me since. Each time I’ve ever shown The Dover Boys to a group of younger CG animators (usually already working pros not many years out of school) they lose their minds in a similar sort of fashion. Like me they’re beside themselves- many had never seen anything like this. Or if they had seen it they’d never stopped and studied how it was accomplished. They could never fathom that getting from point A to point B in a scene in 5 frames was even possible, much less how to do it. This isn’t a knock on anybody- we only know what we know. We only have the experiences we have and we learn the way we’ve been taught. To this day most CG animators are still animating in some adaptation of the way computer programmers thought animation should work two decades ago. Of course the current rigid puppet rig paradigm hasn’t allowed us much freedom from this. Nor does the status quo for the technology give us a lot of room to employ this smear technique in CG. As a result some may dismiss this as an academic exercise or the grumblings of an old crank with an axe to grind with CG. “Stop harping on the past, get with the times.” That sort of rot. But remember, I am a CG animator- I really think the medium has untapped potential, and as such I think this is something worth exploring. When I initially studied The Dover Boys I experienced some of my first glimmers of understanding about what I call the ‘guts’ of animation. I began to see that one of the core secrets of excellent animation lay in the power of the drawings chosen to represent motion. Since then I have had several other major influences to thank for showing me that this is true regardless of how you make those drawings, whether you make them with a pencil or by pushing a puppet around on a computer.

But back to the cartoon- sadly the practice of employing this smear technique seems to have been mostly a one off experiment with not much further extensive use even among Golden Age cartoons. True enough it was used in spots throughout the years, but I don’t recall any single cartoon or film that embraced this technique so boldly (or to such great success). Which is too bad, really. It’s really interesting once you study it. Most big moves can be described as 3 drawings where the motion is broken out as 15% 70% 15%. Occasionally for larger moves you’ll see a four drawing move with a 10%, 40%, 40%, 10% sort of thing going on. The percentages are my loose way of defining how much of the motion for an action is represented in each specific drawing. The real genius of those ease drawings is of course in having some parts of the drawing be 95 or 98% of the way to the next pose while other parts are still dragged back at 60 or 70%, but that’s getting pretty technical. The cool thing is that even though there is a kind of motion formula at work here, all you need to do is to string a few smaller moves like this together with some stillness between them for rhythm and you can get great texture in the motion. The scenes of Dan Backslide “running” up to the cabin door to open it are fantastic examples of just how far you can push this technique and still have it hold up.


An example of 75% of the motion all wrapped up into one drawing.

A big huge thanks to Kevin for taking the time to break this down and put up examples. It’s like a clinic for free. You all should be reading his blog.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Right on cue….

Aardman releases a couple of online clips to their recent short film The Pearce Sisters. Go see ‘em!

It’s fantastic! I love it! I’m jealous of the creativity here. The mixture of CG and traditional medium is great- the solution for the water is imaginative and seamless. I love that they spend so much time lingering over the quiet, dull moments of the sisters’ daily life. It brings a charming pace and texture to the work. As they say over yonder -”Brilliant!” I want more!

edit: I forgot to mention I got wind of this via Steve Ogden’s ever nifty Animwatch Blog. Steve does solid work with his AnimWatch site and it deserves a good plug.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Fool’s Errand, Part 3


In my previous post in this series I related how I’d gotten stuck in my own quagmire of a short film production. The source of this Slough of Despond was the amount of work I had set up for myself- a noble if somewhat Quixotic venture. You see, way back when I started this thing, I had fallen for a false value statement. I believed the myopic industry hype that there is really only one way for great CG animation to look- namely the uber polished, highly detailed and technically impressive big budget feature film style. Anything that wasn’t that style was “good for what it is”, but it wasn’t really good. It was good* (with an asterisk). To rise above such a terrible fate I determined that the drive for my project was to show a mastery of a technique or a style. As a result I got caught trying to craft a short film that could stand up to the visual style and standards of larger CG feature film projects.

But why did I believe this in the first place? I suppose the answer to that is found in why any of us would believe it. Clearly many folks in the business (or who would love desperately to be in the business) believe this. Some in the film biz have a self interest in perpetuating the myth. It keeps them on top of the mountain with all the wannabes looking up, drooling, clambering to climb that same hill. Perhaps we believe this hype out of a misguided need for affirmation, to be considered part of something exclusive, something with meaning. Too many labor under the pretense that until they work at Pixar (or insert name of your favorite studio here) their animation careers and efforts are invalid, inferior and without full expression. If we’re honest most of us would have to admit that we all believe this same thing at some point in our animation walk. Many of us still do. Thus the need to do something “on that level”. To prove something to the demo reel watchers in the ivory towers of film studios. My previous short films didn’t show this- they weren’t made to be demo reels but were intended to be films. Thus the animation in them wasn’t the most polished stuff in the world. Fine for a short, but it wasn’t going to do the trick in convincing people that I could animate “at the highest level”- whatever the heck that meant.

I determined that I had to show that I could do feature film quality animation. So I would pull out all the stops. As to why I chose a short film to do this I haven’t the faintest idea. Perhaps because down inside I really enjoy making short films more than doing “just” animation. Whatever the reason I decided that this project was going to be the one that showed that I could pull off that high polish style. Of course at that moment the Fool’s Errand was in full stride and almost four years of lunacy have since transpired.

Of course I eventually did end up doing film animation, but the short film project that I thought would serve that end didn’t get me there. Instead what got me doing film work was a demo reel of solid, professional work. In effect my career had eventually spoken for itself and I didn’t need to prove anything with a short film.
But a funny thing happened on the way to my career goal- or rather in obtaining it. I found the highly polished film style of work was –I hesitate to say it for fear of offending– boring. What I mean is that the actual making of that style of animation doesn’t get me all excited. It’s just not as much fun as putting out something fun and energetic that has a few rough edges to it. This isn’t to say that the highly polished CG film style is bad. It’s clearly not. It’s just not my favorite style of animation to actually sit down and animate. But even with personal style preferences aside, I’ve come to see that the highly polished CG film style of animation is not any more the “best” than anything else. To return the charge: It’s good for what it is. Like all styles it has its place where it works well. But I don’t believe that there is one single “best” style of CG animation. Just lots of different good styles. The key (for me at least) is to be about doing the one that works for me, the one I enjoy. I remember when I used to smile at the stuff I made while I was making it. I’d like to do that again.

Which is why I doubt I’ll ever finish the space man short. It’s too much like the boring work I don’t like to do. If I’m going to animate in my free time I’m gonna have fun. I’m not going to do a style of animation that bores me just to prove a point that I no longer believe is valid. Maybe some day I’ll do something with all those assets. Who knows? But for now I’d rather do something fast and fun.
What are the lessons that I learned from this story?
First, don’t make a short film to try and get a job as an animator in feature film. That’s what demo reels are for. I’m not saying that a short film will never get you a job. Enough people have gotten work from their student films to prove that this isn’t true. I’m just saying that I believe that making a short film should be about the experience of making a film, not getting a job as an animator. If you happen to get work from the short- fantastic! But don’t make a short just to get a job.

Second, don’t allow the narrow-mindedness of others to narrow your own mind. Open your eyes to what is possible. There’s more than one style or design that is “good” or “great”. Don’t let the style hegemony of the current feature film market dominate your thinking. Somebody very bright and very confident decided that Pocoyo was going to have a different, fun style of CG animation. We’re all the better for it. Who will make the next Pocoyo?

Third, don’t make your film to impress industry types. Make it to entertain audiences. Or entertain yourself at the very least.

But most of all have fun or don’t do it. In the end I think that fun shows through in the work. Let the high brow types pan your short film for its animation “flaws”. Audiences can tell when you had fun. That often more than makes up for the rest.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Fool’s Errand, Part 2

Wow, 10 days since the last post. As you might have guessed I’ve been super busy, but I didn’t want to let this topic die just yet. In my first post on The Fool’s Errand topic I noted how it’s not all that feasible a goal to try and imitate the bigscreen results in your personal short film (especially if CG is your medium of choice). There’s been some great discussion in the comments, so let’s hope we can keep the conversation rolling. In this installment I put my cards on the table to demonstrate why I believe what I do about all this.


This is a test render from a short film that I had been working on for about 4 years in my spare time. This was an early “look of film” concept test, done sometime in the summer of 2004.


This is a rendered push in on the character in the set. Caveats: It’s rough, the animation is totally scratch (as in Definitely Not Final) and there are some render glitches (flickering shadow maps, etc.). All par for the course for an early test.


And from way back in early 2004 is a walk cycle test with the original version of the character design and rig. The reason it plays all stuttery is because it’s 12 fps. My early tests are often on 2’s to keep things light and simple.

Here are some other test renders as well as some boards from a sequence from early on in the short… (click on each to see bigger)

caveInterior.jpg controlRoom_ambOcc.jpg hallway_RedWhite.jpg

murrayRoom_Blue.jpg murrayRoomShelf.jpg contactSheet.jpg donut.jpg stalagmo.jpg iDot.jpg rocket.jpg

boards_01_sm.jpg boards_02_sm.jpg boards_03_sm.jpg

As you can plainly see this stuff nowhere near as detailed or lush as the Ratatouille scenes mentioned in my previous post. There are all kinds of style and design deicisions in here meant to keep the workload as manageable as possible. I consciously chose to work from simple sit-com type stage sets. Most sets don’t have a fully built 4th wall. In addition I was careful to not overbuild things that won’t be seen up close. I had no plans on building a set so completely detailed that I had total camera freedom without fear of showing the technical uglinesses that come for free in CG (model faceting, low texture resolutions, crawling shadow maps- all computationally and laboriously expensive to fix). The shots were already in mind when the sets were built. Additionally I consciously chose color and lighting schemes that were roughly monochromatic, thus reducing the demand for highly detailed textures to give objects their sense of meaning and presence.

On the technical side I borrowed some techniques I’d learned in the film biz. I developed lighting rigs and production tools that would allow me to quickly block in my lighting - all while automatically taking into consideration which set or location the character was in. That would speed up baseline lighting and allow me to focus on finer details. Render scripts were developed, again to automate a lot of the gruntwork of getting images out. Compositing scripts and recipes were also created, as were color correction recipes and widgets. Animation wise I’ve got my library of various tools that built up over the years to help me move quickly. A pose library tool was adapted to allow me to quickly block in broadstroke foundational poses for detail areas like fingers and faces, again allowing me to focus my time on working the details and finer subtleties rather than build everything from scratch.

In short, I used every trick or technique I’d ever learned in the biz about how to streamline production without sacrificing quality. I just built smaller, home versions for my own use. There wasn’t a single area of production where I was not leveraging my many years and many different kinds of studio experiences.

Yet even with all of these design and production shortcuts I was doomed. The amount of work was too much. I bogged down. Animation tests revealed that the character rig wasn’t going to hold up. Skinning fat characters that maintain good volume but are still flexibile and have the ability to be pushed to some extreme poses is perhaps one of the hardest rigging tasks in the business. This rig had 60+ pose deformers just on his hips and belly to maintain proper volume and it still was not enough. It was looking like a bag of grape jelly in even moderately extreme poses and motions. Seeing as feature film quality was the standard and The Incredibles had totally redefined what the bar was for this kind of stuff I had to completely rethink my approach. I started to see that a muscle & fat simulation solution was going to be the only thing that would make him look right. After some messing with Michael Comet’s cMuscle system (I still had my old beta testing copy lying around) I saw that I could do it, but it’d take me a year probably to get it right. It’s at that moment that I said Enough. I’d already rebuilt the guy 3 times over the previous two years. It was too much. And it’s not like I could throw him away and go with a skinny guy because so much of the short’s story was built around his bumbling, fat, clumsy and slovenly ways.

Aside from the rig problems, there was the sheer workload of the animation. The animation was going to be highly polished film level Cg work- something I have experience doing and can do pretty well. But that takes time. Even though I work fast the best I could hope to accomplish for my own film would be 2 or 3 seconds of final, full, CG feature film quality animation per week. I lacked sufficient man-days to do any more. To do a minute would take me 6 months of animation. To do the full 8 minutes for the story would take three and a half, maybe four years. Pre-production had already cost me almost four years. Re-working the rig for the fourth time would take another 8 months or more. I haven’t even mentioned lighting, FX, rendering, compositing, sound engineering, music, etc. In effect I had chosen a style of animation and design that required far too much labor.

I fell into the trap and the technique was the goal. I was trying to match the visual tones of a larger film production all on my own. And I wasn’t even trying to match that level of detail exactly. I did make plenty of compromises along the way. Yet even with all that I was still left with a project that was easily 10+ years from completion.

I know, I know. Shame on me. But understand- I could do the job. I could do it all well enough to make it work. I wasn’t on track to embarrass myself here. Yet I learned a very hard lesson in my youthful exuberance: Just because you can do a thing doesn’t mean you should.

In another post I’ll explain why I made this doomed choice in the first place.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

The Fool’s Errand, Part 1

Seeing as I just made a call for animators to get in the game and make some indy short films I thought I’d offer up some thoughts gleaned from my experiences in such ventures (both good and bad). Oddly enough I think I learned more from the failures than the successes, but life’s funny that way. First up, the painfully obvious (which somehow seems to not be painful enough to keep us from trying it)…

If you are going to make a short film all by yourself then don’t even try and match this!



This being just one set from Pixar’s latest film Ratatouille. As other blogs have noted, Disney has decided to put a QuicktimeVR of the environment up online for you to poke around in. What can I say? This stuff is more than impressive. The level of detail and craftmanship is astounding. Every surface holds up regardless of how close you get to it, everything is maxed out. It’s a technical marvel of an accomplishment.

Which is exactly why it would be all wrong to try and do anything even remotely close to it in a personal short film.

But why not? Doncha wanna compete with the best of the best? Are you being a chicken, Lango? Gonna back down from the challenge, give up without a fight? Heh. You’ll learn in a little bit that’s not the case. No, simply put- it’s just not feasible. The answer can be found in two words: Man Days. What is a ‘man day’? Easy– How much work can a single person do in a normal 8 hour day of work? That is a man day. How many man days does a task cost? Add up all the people that are working on it and mutliply that by the number of days they spend on the task. That’s your man day cost. All tasks in the creation of a CG film are estimated, budgeted, assigned, tracked, measured and paid for in man-days. This one set- a major set in the film- required many artists and technicans working many weeks and months to make it to this level of detail and quality. In other words, it has a ton of man days in it.

Well, duh. So what does all that have to do with you and your short film? You’re not out to make a 100 minute feature but a 4 or 5 minute short? Why can’t you do this? I’ll tell you why- Unless you are independently wealthy or super human you have very, very few man-days to work with. A person who is working to pay the bills, live life and is making a short film on the side has at best maybe 3 man days a week to give to a personal project. And that’s hammering. Typically you’ll have 2 man days spread out over a week. Two. Not twenty. Not ten. Not even five. Just two. At two man-days per week it would literally take you 10 years to faithfully recreate just this one set from Ratatouille. That’s not hyperbole.

It has been pointed out in comments here and elsewhere that it’s a ton of work for not a lot of pay off to make a short film. There is absolutely no disputing that. Mark Mayerson astutely points out that the real gold in a short film is the end result. All techniques regarding the visual presentation are merely servants to this end goal. The trouble comes when we make the technique the goal.

Many indy animators filmmakers (especially those who opt for CG as their weapon of choice) have been victim of being too focused on trying to recreate what we see on the big screen. Those films are the result of huge budgets and crews of hundreds and hundreds of artists and technicians working for years. But our pride says “I want my film to look that good!” Of course we do. We love what we do. Many of us are good at it. Many of us who have done this stuff professionally for years know that we can make something that good- we don’t lack the skill, experience or talent. And we certainly wouldn’t want to degrade our good name by making something crappy. But that’s a dangerous place to be. Pride is one thing (and bad enough). But the ability to back it up, though- that is the critical ingredient to hubris. To try and match blow for blow against the big boys is pure madness- even if only for 3 or 4 minutes of screen time. The effort involved doesn’t scale down linearly and we’re fools to believe otherwise. So what do we do? We don’t want to make our personal stuff look like a Nasonex Bee commercial, but we can’t make it as good as we know how because the workload is insane. There’s a 22 here, go try and catch it.

To get an indy animated film done then a complete paradigm shift of what we perceive as “good” animated filmmaking is needed. In short- we need to step back from the edge of the abyss and open our eyes to the possibilities that various style and design choices afford us. In other words, stop making the technique the prize. Think outside of the box that everybody tells you you need to live in. Don’t buy the hype that there is only one kind of “good” animation and that anything that isn’t that style is somehow a lesser thing. Don’t believe this tripe– especially if you’re a CG animator/artist. There’s more out there than trying to duplicate the results of the big studios. If you want to finish your short film you need to kill your little fantasy of single handedly creating a film as fully animated, technically sophisticated and visually detailed as No Time for Nuts or any 4 minutes of Ratatouille. Kill it, then put it in a simple pine box and bury it in the backyard of your mind with fresh flowers on the grave. If you don’t you will set yourself up to fail. I’ve already taken this tragic journey once. The results were predictable. I’ll share my thoughts from my own fool’s errand here in the coming days.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Want to *create* great character performances?

Make a short film!

That’s the conclusion I draw from reading the entirety of Mark Mayerson’s master’s thesis (he posted the final installment on it today). Of course I am making a distinction between creating a performance and contributing to one.

The bulk of Mark’s thesis points out that almost from the start animators on commercial productions have been marginalized in their contributions to a character’s performance. A myriad of decisions and developments in animation over the years have all worked to reduce the animator from an ‘actor with a pencil’ to junior member of a larger committee that contributes to character performances. Character designers, voice actors, live action reference actors, directors, storyboard and layout artists and now actors in mo-cap suits– all have taken a chunk out of the animator’s domain of being the creator of a performance in the same sense that an actor creates one. By the time a film animator gets their scene the larger substantive decisions regarding the performance have already been made, most often without the animator’s input. Mayerson shares this anecdote…

Story artist Bill Peet felt that he was the prime contributor to One Hundred and One Dalmatians and that others simply enhanced his contributions. “The public probably thinks the animator sits down and starts doing it from scratch. I did storyboards, thousands of them, and character design; I would direct the voice recordings. Then guys like Marc Davis, Ken Anderson, and Woolie Reitherman would take credit for my Cruella De Vil and all of the personalities. Those personalities were delineated in drawings, and believe me; I can draw them as well or better than any of them” (Province 163).

The above not only exposes the tension over credit, it also shows that the artists themselves can’t agree on where control of a character lies. Peet wrote the script and did the storyboard for One Hundred and One Dalmatians, based on the book by Dodie Smith. Marc Davis, cast by character as Barrier would prefer, animated Cruella De Vil. Live action reference footage of actress Mary Wickes was shot for the role of Cruella (Frank Thomas 320). Betty Lou Gerson recorded Cruella’s voice track. Does this character represent any one contributor’s point of view? Can any of the above people claim the same level of control that an actor routinely has over a character. …

While within the industry animators are routinely compared to actors, perhaps a better analogy is to musicians in a symphony orchestra. Such musicians are responsible for playing the notes on the page while filtering them through the interpretation of the conductor. Within the ensemble, how much room is there for musicians to assert themselves?

Surprsingly little if you think about it. What’s left is delivering a performance, not creating one. It seems like a slight distinction, but it is a real one. Allegorically speaking, the second trombone music is written. Is your second trombone player quitting the orchestra? No worries. Find yourself a competent professional trombone player and the symphony can succeed without the audience noticing any difference, or even caring to. Fine work for the trombone player, pays the bills and all– but it’s no jazz gig, that’s for sure.

But here’s the sunny ray of opportunity- independent animation. Mayerson again…

It’s only on short projects that animators have the freedom to control a character without having to collaborate, but just as silent animators were limited by their backgrounds as cartoonists, many independent animators are limited by their backgrounds in fine arts. They prize the image over believable characters. Norman McLaren is an example of an independent animator who controlled his films but was more interested in design and the formal aspects of the animation process than he was in creating characters.

How ironic. The one place that offers the most performance freedom from the limitations of the commercial world is independent animation, yet it is largely absent of professional level character animators.

I don’t want people to get the impression that I think working in the film biz is bad or somehow beneath you. It’s a fun and honorable profession and I’m thankful to have had a chance to do it. I’m just saying don’t just settle for being in the film biz, that’s all. There’s more out there than working on the next big film. I think we animators should be engaged in the struggle to create independent animated films and not give all our energy to the homogenized committee. Even if all you make is one or two independent films in your career that’s still a valuable enterprise (I don’t think student films should count since most of them were made when we didn’t know what we were doing. I’m talking about films you would make *after* you became a pro film animator, not your student work). Imagine if every year a few different professional film animators released their own short films filled with rich, professional level character animation and unique performances of note? Imagine how fun the festivals would be! I love the studio shorts that are being made, but I’d love it even more if the animators who worked on them did their own thing as well. Why let Goeblins and Supinfocom have all the fun? Take inspiration from the graphic novel world for comics. Many, many great artists who work in animated film studios express their own creativity outside of their day jobs by creating their own works- you see them at Comicon. These guys and girls aren’t cranking out the industrial DC or Marvel stuff, but these animation film pros are bringing the weight of their experience and skill to apply fresh voices and expressions to the medium. Certainly the comics world is all the richer for it. Why shouldn’t film animators do the same thing?

Eddie Fitzgerald is a genius

Today he riffs on acting classes, something we talked about here recently, and I just gotta say- it’s pure gold.


You gotta read the rest. I dunno why but his doodles just make me giggle. I want Uncle Eddie to make more cartoons. Please, Unc? Please?

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Rats! (Duuuude)

Disney/Pixar’s Ratatouille came in with a $16.6 million Friday box office take in the U.S. Already somebody is having a bad weekend.

Why is that? Well, by the time studio executives go to bed on Friday they pretty much know (with some measure of certainty) whether or not their film will hit their projections. Once the Friday numbers are in, from there you can almost run the numbers like a formula. Typically a film’s Friday box will be one third of its initial weekend box office. Friday represents the median number, Saturday’s numbers are usually a little higher, Sunday’s numbers are usually a bit smaller. So if you run $16.6 million x 3 you end up with an opening weekend box office for Ratatouille of about $50 million. That would be a full $10 million less than Cars $60 million and $20 million less than Brad Bird’s last film, The Incredibles’ $70 million. And if you take the opening weekend box office you can multiply it by about 3.5 to get a decent idea about where the film will finally bow out of theaters. That means that Ratatouille runs the risk of being the first Pixar film to gross less than $200 million domestic box office since A Bug’s Life’s $168 million. This just weeks after audiences proved that animation can still score big, evidenced by Shrek the Third’s take of $311 million (and counting). Ouch. It’s surprising that Ratatouille didn’t do better considering the enormous 95% fresh rating from RottenTomatoes.com and countless other critics’ enthusiasm for the film. Animation vets have been calling it the “best animated film since Pinocchio”. Wow, heady stuff. Of course things can change, but I’m just looking at the typical outcome for any given film based on opening day numbers.

Granted, a $50 million open pretty much ensures that Ratatouille will make money for Mickey and friends — just not as much as they’d like, especially when you consider that those rat themed merchandising deals aren’t going to be pulling as much weight as those for Cars did. It does kinda boggle the mind, though. It seems like Bird can’t win for losing. He makes great films that are almost universally loved by those who see them, but folks just don’t flock to see them. This isn’t an Iron Giant redux, either. Unlike Warner Brothers Disney marketed the snot out of this film. So why did less than half the people who watched Shrek the Third go see it? Is it really the rat thing? The cooking thing? No big name stars thing? Is it a French thing? Puzzling indeed.

(note: I haven’t seen it yet. I was on a plane back to Brazil the day it came out in the U.S. It’s available here in western Brazil, but only in Portuguese. I want to see it in the original english, so I have to wait for the DVD this christmas. Poo. )

Meanwhile, Sony’s rather entertaining little ditty Surf’s Up is limping its way out to a run of about $70 million domestic box office. That’s too bad because I kinda thought it was a refreshing change of pace. I didn’t care much for the main penguin character or his love interest, but the penguin played by Jeff Bridges was nicely acted- both in voice and in puppet. Most of the things I liked about Surf was the surrounding cast of characters. There were some fun ideas and performances there. The problem was that the lead character kinda came off whiney and hard to like, which usually doesn’t translate into big money for animated films. If you make him funny and whiney then that can work, but playing him straight and whiney… not so much. I did like the mockumentary conceit, but I felt they wobbled in and out of it and the overall affect was less consistent. The water was indeed brilliantly executed, but families usually aren’t big on watching Siggraph demo reels. Still, I thought it was a fun film. It’s just too bad that it’s getting drowned by bigger waves this summer. I’ll get the DVD, though. So far Sony Animation has some pretty looking films, but they haven’t found their first big hit yet. Hopefully they don’t get discouraged and pull out of the game. It’d be nice to see them keep developing their style.

Monday July 2 Update: Well, turns out I was a wee bit generous in my guesses. Disney-Pixar’s Ratatouille turned in the lowest opening weekend box for a Pixar film in 10 years- $47.2million. Unless this thing grows legs like Finding Nemo did (it opened with $70 million but kept going strong enough to top out over $300 million) then Ratatouille is on track to pull in well less than the “normal” $200 million we’ve come to expect for a Pixar film. Again I’m kinda puzzled by it all, but I guess there’s no accounting for taste with the American film going public. *shrug*