Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A Disney Halloween!

In celebration of Halloween, I thought I'd post a couple of illustrations that I drew and painted about 3 years ago as part of a Disney Halloween book published by Random House, entitled "Don't Go Bump in the Night!" The book offered a series of safety tips to kids by utilizing various characters from both Disney and Pixar films to illustrate them in a fun way. This book can still be ordered here on Amazon.

In this painting of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the point was to show kids how important it is to carry a flashlight in order to see your way in the dark. The characters were drawn on paper and inked traditionally with brush on a transparent sheet of mylar. The linework was then scanned in and coloured with Photoshop (including the outlines) on a layer that was created on top of the background painting that had also been scanned in beforehand. (Click on all images to see them larger.)

Here is the background art on its own. I try to paint each background in a style that matches the film itself. In this case, I was trying for a more delicate watercolour look, although I was actually using dilute layers of gouache to achieve the effect.

In this painting of The Lion King, the tip was regarding the recommended use of makeup instead of facemasks that might hinder one's eyesight. This was just a single page illustration, as opposed to the 2-page spread of Snow White above.

Again I was trying to match the background style of the film itself, this time using the gouache more full-strength as it was used in the actual film production. By the way, this hybrid approach of traditionally painted backgrounds combined with characters that are traditionally drawn and inked, yet coloured up in Photoshop, is about as much as I would want to involve the computer in my artwork. I do not personally care for the look of digitally painted backgrounds and I also prefer the tactility of real paint on a cold-pressed illustration board. For me, it is all about the aesthetic.

Unfortunately, I can't take credit for the cover of the book, as it was illustrated later by one of Disney's in-house artists, I believe. From what I recall, the design concept for the cover had not been finalized when I had first been sent the project.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

"Sacred Asian Man"

Yes, the Dalai Lama is visiting here in Canada. And the politicians are all cozying up to him much to the chagrin of the Chinese government. Come to think of it, it seems like anybody of any importance wants a photo op with the guy. I'm not really sure why, as he's always struck me as being like somebody's likeable but bumbling uncle, not the awe-inspiring figure he's made out to be in the media. Anyway, it led me to compose this satirical little ditty, to be sung to the tune of that 60's pop hit of Johnny Rivers with the similar title:

"Sacred Asian Man"

There’s a man who lives a life serenely;
To everyone he meets, he smiles congenially;
But he's not finished yet,
‘Cause he still wants Tibet;
Odds are he’ll do Larry King tomorrow.

Sacred Asian Man,
Sacred Asian Man;
They've taken away your mountains,
But you've still got TV!

Beware of all those sneaky games they're playin';
They think you're just a naive Himalayan;
Be careful what you say,
'Til you find out what they pay;
Odds are you'll do Larry King tomorrow.

Sacred Asian Man,
Sacred Asian Man;
They've taken away your mountains,
But you've still got TV!

Appearing live with Regis Philbin one day,
Then gettin' it on with Paula Zahn the next day;
With Barbara Walters then,
It's back to CNN;
Odds are you’ll do Larry King tomorrow.

Sacred Asian Man,
Sacred Asian Man;
They've taken away your mountains,
But you've still got TV!

©Pete Emslie 2007

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Happy Birthday John Cleese!

Yes, today is the birthday of former Monty Python member, John Cleese. Just like I had said about Bob Newhart in a previous post, John Cleese is also one of a handful of performers who can break me up just by my looking at them. With his long frame, high forehead and immense, jutting chin, Mr. Cleese is a walking caricature. Or should I say, a "Silly-walking" caricature. When I was looking for the ideal source material on which to base my caricature, I watched several classic Python routines before finally settling on his famous "Ministry of Silly Walks". (Though his portrayal of the hapless customer in the "Dead Parrot Sketch" was awfully tempting too.)

Of course, Cleese has had some success in his years after Python, most notably in his own series, "Fawlty Towers". However, aside from his Monty Python films, his movie career has been spotty. His biggest starring role is undoubtedly in the excellent "A Fish Called Wanda" (which he also wrote), but another film I really liked him in is the lesser known "Clockwise". In this very British film, Cleese plays the no-nonsense headmaster of a boys' school who prides himself on his strict adherence to punctuality. Every aspect of his life is planned out to the second and he can't abide those who can't do things on time. He's delighted to find that he's been named "Headmaster of the Year", but when he sets out on his journey out of town to give his acceptance speech, one small delay leads to a constant string of other things going wrong until his life seems to be a complete disaster. Cleese's character is similar in some ways to his Basil Fawlty in his intolerance of others' foibles, though as he loses more and more hope in getting to the conference on time he seems to grow more calmly resigned to his fate, whereas Basil would probably still be yelling and lying all the way in sheer desperation. Anyway, it is certainly a film I highly recommend that shows off what John Cleese does so well.

Here now is the "Ministry of Silly Walks" sketch from the Monty Python show that I had used as reference for my caricature of John Cleese:

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Flash in the Pan...

Over on Cartoon Brew there is this discussion currently going on debating the merits or lack thereof regarding the Flash animation software. I'll admit my bias against it is as one who finds the results thus far to be less than satisfying when compared to the best frame-by-frame pencil animation from the glorious past that I grew up on. In fact, I even find the limited animation style of Hanna-Barbera's 1960's era shows like "Yogi Bear" to be far more visually appealing due to the organic, hand-drawn nature of what inbetweens there are. I just posted the following comment that I know is going to result in a good trouncing over on their board. But I have taken great pains to explain my views, so I hope that even those of you who like using the program will at least try to understand where I am coming from on this rather contentious subject:

To all those who defend Flash and claim that “it’s just another tool” and can produce wonderful results in the hands of a skilled artist, I have this to say: An old Etch-a-Sketch is also “just another tool” as well, yet I could practise with it for months or years on end and never produce an image with the same control or visual appeal as I could with a pencil on paper. Like it or not, there are those of us traditionalists who see Flash for what it is: a “tool” for creating computerized cutouts using replacement parts, not fluid character animation.

Even the examples being cited here as superior, such as the dancing frog short and “Foster’s Home For Imaginary Friends”, may well be entertaining but they are not in any way comparable visually to the best of traditional hand-drawn classical animation. In “Fosters” for example, while I’ll grant you there may be a certain visual appeal in terms of graphic shapes, it is still just predetermined replaceable character parts being shifted around on screen. Any “Squash and Stretch” you see is not the real deal either, as it is achieved simply by distorting the image along its X or Y axis. When a character on “Fosters” turns his head from the front to the side, there are no inbetweens allowing for a gradual turn, just a *whoosh* sound as the head immediately changes views in a single frame. At best, there may be an attempt at contriving a 3/4 view inbetween by sliding the features gradually along the the front face cutout before replacing it altogether with the profile. Again, the Flash software is not conducive to subtle animation.

If these limitations are all perfectly fine with you folks, then go ahead and enjoy it as a medium. But please don’t try to convince the rest of us that, in the right hands, somebody could produce a film that rivals “Pinocchio” using Flash. I’ll admit, I’ve seen a precious few examples where an animator is drawing frame-by-frame directly into Flash, but even those results, while noble in the attempt, do not produce anything that has the sensitive rhythmic linework I associate with the best of pencil animation, due to the clunky line quality that I always think looks like a brush inked line that’s been hacked out on both sides with an Exacto knife! I’ve had my own brush inked line art ruined in a similar way by technicians who imported it into the “Illustrator” program, leaving it in a mangled mess, all in their quest for it to be a vectorized image. Sadly, everything has become a slave to the needs of the computer.

Yes, Flash may be “just another tool” in the eyes of some, but don’t kid yourselves regarding its inherent limitations. And to those who maintain that only a poor carpenter blames his tools, please don’t hand me a plane when I need to saw through a piece of lumber…

End of rant. :)

Or maybe not...

In case anybody I've been debating with stops in here for a look-see, I'm posting a clip each from the Flash-animated "Foster's Home For Imaginary Friends" in comparison with a clip from a 60's episode of the hand-drawn "The Flintstones" with my comments:

"Foster's" - Digitally rendered, highly geometric shapes results in a deliberately flat, graphic look. There is no implied volume of form. Characters are comprised of pre-designed body pieces that are shifted around on screen and replaced by new pieces to achieve very limited animation. Animators are largely restricted by availability of head and body angles stored in computer. The clever timing of the movement is its saving grace. Very unsatisfying performance otherwise, due to inherent limitations of software.

"Flintstones" - Also, limited animation with some parts of body on "held cels" that do not move while other parts, like arms, legs and face are animated with different individual drawings to achieve more characterization and distinct facial expressions. Though still shape-based design to some degree, there is an implied feeling of dimensional, organic form. Animators still have to limit their number of drawings, but each drawing can be drawn from scratch, enabling a more satisfying performance overall, dictated by the vocal track.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Disney Turnarounds

A few weeks ago, John Kricfalusi wrote a very helpful post on using simple toys as a drawing aid for learning how to construct a character using basic forms and guidelines for placing surface details. Here is the post showing his example of a Top Cat construction drawing. Although I haven't used that officially as a lesson in my own Character Design class, I have actually given something similar in past years to individual students who are having trouble getting the hang of construction drawing. I'd hand out a sheet showing my sketches of a simple vinyl toy in several different angles. Hopefully, practicing that method of drawing on their own, the students could more quickly get up to speed with the rest of the class.

Interestingly, I have often had the opportunity to do the exact reverse of that process for many jobs in the past. I used to regularly create "Turnaround Drawings" of various Disney characters for the Disney Stores and Catalogue art department. Usually an artist there would provide a rough concept sketch of the character in the desired pose and I would then adapt that sketch into a series of 2 or 3 drawings depicting the character at different angles. These turnarounds would then be sent to the artist who would then sculpt the actual item in clay using the various views as a guide to maintaining the accuracy from all sides. I always enjoyed the challenge of trying to visualize the finished sculpture as I was working out these different views. One really has to "think" in 3 dimensions.

Usually, front and back 3/4 views are the best for showing the most visual information, but sometimes including an extra view or partial view is desirable to fill in some extra info, like the direct front view of Grumpy's head to show how the one eye is shut while the other is stretched wide in his skeptical expression. In addition to these turnarounds, the sculptor would normally receive some animation model sheet drawings that would help him further understand the character's structure. By hunting around a bit on Google, I was able to find this one image of the finished Pinocchio figurine ( a line called "Big Figs" by Disney), though the view is certainly not the best to show off the character well. After I do these things, I'm never really sure if all of them do in fact get produced. Last year, however, I did see several I had worked on when I visited the Disney gallery in Downtown Disney at WDW in Florida. It was neat to see how they'd come out. Usually I feel that the sculptor, with the Disney art department's guidance, does a very nice job in maintaining what I was trying to portray in my turnarounds.

To help understand his profile, Disney had requested a third view of this White Rabbit pose. He was certainly an enjoyable figure to work on, being comprised of very rounded forms. In fact, you can see my construction lines still visible, like the round pear shape body and the small sphere for his cranium. These underlying construction lines would have been drawn in blue pencil in my original drawings, appearing as a light gray in these photocopies.

Incidentally, this post today is in response to a request made several weeks ago by my friend, Alvaro Cervantes. He is a brilliant sculptor himself with many years experience in toy design, both at Disney and other companies. Please check out his work by clicking on the link to his blog provided on the right.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Legendary "Mr. Fun"!

Today the Walt Disney Company named several more longtime Disney personnel as "Disney Legends". One of this year's inductees is "Mr. Fun" himself - writer/cartoonist, Floyd Norman. Though I can't really claim to know him well myself, I do think back fondly on the one time back in about 1981 when I met Floyd briefly. He was working in Disney's comic strip department writing the Mickey Mouse daily strips at the time, and I recall him showing me how he'd rough out the ideas visually before passing them onto the artist assigned to draw up the finished strip. The department was headed up by the dry-witted Carson Van Osten, who was quite the cartoonist himself, and I also remember meeting the phenomenal Daan Jippes too, who went on to being a highly sought after animation character designer later on. It sure looked like it was a fun place to work back then!

No, mostly I know Floyd as many of us do: as the ever genial presence on various animation related website discussion boards. For many of us, Floyd is a refreshing link back to the glory years of the Walt era at Disney, as he always extolls the creative sensibilities and genius of "The Old Maestro", as he calls him. His reminiscenses of the films he worked on and the artists he worked alongside of have made for a lot of great reading for those of us who wish we'd been there at the time. Floyd has written many online articles that have been featured on Jim Hill Media that may be found right here! I particularly enjoyed the multi-part article he wrote on his memories of working on "The Jungle Book". I'm hoping that Floyd will gather up all of this material into a book someday. Of course, Floyd is already the author/cartoonist of the book, "Faster! Cheaper!", which is a collection of his one-panel gag cartoons commenting wryly on his long history working at Disney.

One side of Floyd that has to be mentioned is his great generous spirit towards young artists. I know that Randeep Katari, one of my Sheridan students from a couple years ago, considers Floyd a personal artistic hero and mentor for having graciously given of his time answering questions and providing helpful tips over the last few years in their correspondence. Randeep got to finally meet Floyd when he visited LA a couple summers ago and I remember how exciting that was for him. I believe it's important for young artists to have heroes that they can learn from, and it's guys like Floyd that can be proud of the way their generosity has helped to inspire many others who want to keep the art of animation vibrant in the years to come. In my opinion, that generous spirit is what constitutes a true "Disney Legend". Here's to you, "Mr. Fun"!

Monday, October 8, 2007

Do I Love "The Jungle Book"? You Better Believe It!

It seems that with the 40th Anniversary 2-disc DVD release of Walt Disney's "The Jungle Book" this past week, a lot of animation related bloggers are posting up their memories and thoughts on this animated classic. Check out Disney animator, Will Finn's post here. Since "The Jungle Book" remains my alltime favourite film of any kind since its debut in 1967, I reckon I need to add my reminiscences here too.

When "The Jungle Book" premiered on the big screen way back then, I was just a seven year old kid. I'd already been cartooning since I was about four, mostly from watching the likes of Popeye and Bugs Bunny cartoons on TV, but I'd seen several older Disney features in their periodic rereleases and had definitely developed a taste for Disney animation. But now I was getting to see Disney's latest release as it was appearing onscreen for audiences for the first time! I suspect that for many of us animated cartoon fans who came along at the tail end of the Baby Boom, "The Jungle Book" was the film that really did it for us. I know I was certainly at that impressionable age where this film was like a catalyst that started me toward wanting to be a cartoonist as my life's goal. Yes, I was focused on my future career at the tender age of seven, as frivolous and risky as it may seem, and nothing or nobody was going to take me back to a more practical job in the Man Village!

I think I'll write more on how I came to work as a cartoonist (and ultimately for Disney) in a future article, but today I want to discuss something others are writing about on their blogs that is certainly for me a big part of the film's appeal, namely the voice talents that were used in "The Jungle Book"...

The pages reproduced above are from a publication called "Persistence of Vision", which was started by my friend Paul F. Anderson back about 15 years ago. In the few years it was published, there was no better, more exhaustive journal on Disney history than this one, and I hope that Paul realizes just how many people owe him a big debt of thanks for his efforts in producing such a series of wonderful issues.

Anyway, this was an article I had written and illustrated for POV, detailing the way Disney's animators would often caricature the essential physical elements and mannerisms of the personalities who gave voice to the characters. Whereas it is quite an obvious ploy to use in a human character like, say, The Mad Hatter, basing his looks on that of comedian, Ed Wynn, it takes some clever doing to translate an actor's physical characteristics into that of an animal. I don't wish to repeat myself here, so please read the article to get a better idea of what I'm talking about. Hopefully, you can see from my caricatures how the Disney artists were similarly interpreting the actors' features into animal form.

Michael Sporn has written a very good article on his take regarding Disney using celebrity voices for the characters in "The Jungle Book". I certainly don't share his opinion of the film as a whole, but I certainly understand his criticisms of the voice talents. However, I'd like to share my own thoughts on why I believe that the situation was not quite the same in that film as it is in the rampant, celebrity-driven animated features of today.

Considering that "The Jungle Book" came out in 1967, I think it's fair to suggest that practically none of the principal voice actors employed were anywhere near their height of popularity when they recorded the soundtrack to the film. Phil Harris had been a popular radio personality on both his own show with wife Alice Faye, as well as previously playing the boozy, breezy buddy on Jack Benny's radio show. By the time "The Jungle Book" came his way, he'd been reduced to the occasional guest appearance on a variety or talk show and would have been virtually unknown to kids of the time. Likewise, Louis Prima was not a household name with kids either, having had his hit recording career about 10 years earlier, and even his Vegas show, which would have been geared more towards their parents, was also in its waning years by 1967. George Sanders was many years past his physical prime as a dashing leading man onscreen as either noble hero or nefarious cad, and was currently turning up as a character actor in mostly B pictures by then. Only Sebastian Cabot would have been a familiar voice to kids of that era, as he had just found fame on TV's "Family Affair" as the portly valet, Mr. French.

(Here's a taste of the wild antics of Louis Prima that led to the equally manic King Louie!)

These days, actors are hired for voicing animated characters based mostly on their recognition with contemporary audiences. So it is you get A list actors like Brad Pitt, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michelle Pfeiffer all doing lead roles in Dreamworks "Sinbad", and Mel Gibson and Kevin Kline turning up as heroes in recent Disney features. Unfortunately, despite their considerable acting skills and marquee value, none of these actors, at least in my opinion, brought anything much to the roles in terms of vocal "personality". In other words, for all they brought to the performance, the studios could have saved themselves a lot of money and hired virtual unknowns who could give a reading at least as good as, if not better than the big name stars. Frankly, I much prefered the warm, delightful vocal performance of Jodi Benson in "The Little Mermaid", despite the fact she was a virtual unknown outside of her work on the Broadway stage.

I'd argue that all of the vocal talents used in "The Jungle Book" were hired more for the strength of their distinctive and charismatic vocal quality far more so than for marquee recognition. As a kid back then, I related to Baloo the bear because of the warm, rumbling voice of Phil Harris. To this seven year old kid, Harris brought a vocal quality and mannerisms to the role that resulted in pure cartoon magic when coupled with the equally appealing visuals provided by animators, Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas. I didn't know who most of the voices belonged to at that time, but all of these characters were brought to life for me in a way that made "The Jungle Book" my favourite film back then and continues to be to this day!

Friday, October 5, 2007

A Golden Oldie...

Here's a caricature I did many years ago of George Burns. What a delightful personality he was. Not too long ago, a series of his TV specials from the 70's/early 80's was released on a 4 disc DVD set. It's great to be able to watch that kind of entertainment again and I wish that more variety shows would start finding a home on DVD. My personal wishlist includes the variety shows of Dean Martin, Carol Burnett, Andy Williams and The Smothers Brothers. It's too bad we'll never see their likes again. Going back to ol' George, here he is singing "I Wish I Was Eighteen Again", which launched a successful, if short-lived career as a country singer. Yep, this sweet, simple little song was a major hit on the charts in its day: