Monday, June 23, 2008

So Long, George...

Sad to hear that George Carlin passed away today. I can't say I was a huge fan, being more of a Bob Newhart man myself, but I certainly liked his odd, cerebral musings throughout his many televised appearances . Seems to me, I first became aware of him on shows like "Flip Wilson" at the beginning of the 70's. He'd already made a name for himself on TV appearing on "The Ed Sullivan Show", and on these early TV guest spots he had to keep his act clean. A few years later, my friends and I chortled over his bluer material that could be found on his comedy albums, but I must admit, I preferred his odd takes on various subjects more than his infamous "Seven Things You Can't Say on TV". I'm hardly a prude, but shock value humour just gets tedious I think. I don't really follow contemporary comics for that reason.

I'd almost forgotten about this caricature I'd done of George Carlin, as it must date back to around 1979 or so. I recall the circumstances were that he was appearing in concert in my hometown of Ottawa. My friend, Bryan Stoller, also about 19 or 20 at the time, somehow had finagled a chance to interview George for something or other, being quite the enterprising type, and he asked me if I could draw a caricature that he could present to him. I agreed, provided he get a second one I inked up autographed for me. So, though I can't claim to have met George Carlin personally, I did get a signed caricature as a keepsake. Looking back at the art itself, it sure is an unpolished piece. I think my inking has improved a lot in the many years since.

So long, George - I hope you were able to take all your stuff with you...

(PS: I dedicate this post to George Carlin fan, Trevor)

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Diversity and "Fairyations"

There was an interesting comment from Bill Drastal in regards to my last post. He says:

I worked for a web company designing characters and other images and while I can't say what I designed them for, we were defiantly pushed in a direction where all the main characters came out looking like the same, and when we had to design characters of different racial backgrounds the direction was to make them, quote "Normal looking"

Believe me, Bill, I can sympathize with what you say. Unfortunately we live in politically correct times, and there's far too much sensitivity to portraying people of various ethnic backgrounds (other than caucasian, of course) with any degree of caricature. Sure it's a Black character, but it mustn't look too Black. Inexplicably, there seems to be a mindset that says that only caucasians can be caricatured and that the features of other races must be played down or, ironically, made to look more like those of caucasians. Frankly, I don't get it. In fact, I would think that the tendency to make Blacks, Asians and Hispanics all look like blandly designed White people would be more offensive to them.

Back in the early 1970's we had Bill Cosby's "Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids". Though the entertainment merits of the show may be open to debate, the character design was rather commendable. It wasn't brilliant cartooning, but there was at least a very distinct, individual look to each character. Furthermore, this nice variety of shapes and sizes of the characters also helped to visually communicate something of each one's personality. This is something I can't stress enough in my class at Sheridan. Remember, you don't have a lot of time to explain your character to the audience. Ideally, the viewer should have some indication of what your characters are all about from a quick glance. Then you can use your acting and dialogue to further flesh them out as your story unfolds.

Alas, here we are in the politically correct new millennium and Bill Cosby has come back with another animated series, albeit aimed at the preschool set. Still, I really don't think that fact justifies dumbing the art design down to the level found in "Little Bill". As you can see, Little Bill and his whole family are a group of lookalike clones, completely lacking individuality of design as well as being devoid of real expression. I love Bill Cosby as a brilliant anecdotal comedian, but I really do question his taste in regards to the art stylings of "Little Bill".

Little Bill's friends don't fare much better either. They're still pretty much all the same basic design and rather robotic looking in their expressionless poses. I suppose I have to give some credit for varying the body types a bit, but overall they're pretty bland and similar in design. Is this something that today's little tykes really would enjoy? I'm just glad that I grew up on "The Flintstones" and old "Popeye" cartoons in my kindergarten days, before the days of highminded "childrens' programming" came into being.

Not all is bad today, however. Here's a character lineup from "The Proud Family" that shows character designs far more to my liking. I personally think this is one of the finest looking animated shows on TV currently. Yes, the stories are all little morality tales, of course, but it manages to be quite funny and entertaining too, not the least because of the beautifully designed characters. Just looking at this lineup of kids, you get a distinct impression of what each one is like - their personalities are obvious in a glance. Also, the visual designs work well as "silhouettes", that is, if you filled them in as solid black shapes they still would read clearly to the eye as distinct, appealing characters, all different shapes and sizes.

Here's Penny and her family, including her Dad, who's a real opportunistic type. I think he's a great character! Even the backgrounds on this show are pleasing to the eye and unified in design. I really give a lot of credit to all who have created the look of this show. Just compare these funny, colourful characters to their bland and boring counterparts on "Little Bill". I know what I'd be watching if I were still a 5 year old kid...

And now I'm going to look again at the new "Tinker Bell" movie from Disney. Like I said before, I would consider any one of these Fairy designs appealing enough on its own, as there is certainly a visual appeal to the head to body ratio, the flowing, organic shapes, and the colour schemes, as we've come to expect from Disney (though the impact is lessened by the CG animation, in my opinion, compared to the linear characters in classic Disney films.) But the fact that there are five of these tiny girls, all identical in face and form is what I see as a big, big mistake.

In looking at this publicity still from the film, one gets absolutely no impression of who these five fairies are: what their personalities are like, or how they might relate to each other in the story. Cute though they may be, they really communicate absolutely nothing to the viewer in their design. All of their various personalities are going to have to be explained through the dialogue, which is a real waste of the animation medium, I believe.

Not long ago, however, I saw this on Jim Hill's site. These young ladies have been hired by Disney to portray the five Fairies as meet 'n' greet walkaround characters at promotional events and maybe at Disneyland.

Ironically, I find these live young ladies to suggest far more in possible personality than their animated counterparts. We know who Tink is, but how about her friends? If I were to hazard a guess, I'd say that the one on the lower left suggests an outgoing, "Voted most likely to succeed" type of girl. The Black girl looks pensive and serene, maybe a shy type. The girl with the braid might be a goofy and not particularly bright type, reminiscent of Goldie Hawn in her "Laugh-In" days. Finally, the Asian girl looks rather mischievous to me, perhaps given to pulling pranks on the others. Whether these impressions are accurate to what the film's characters are all about is not important - but the fact that these live actresses convey something to me in terms of a perceived personality is what counts. Why am I not able to read the animated characters as such? In cartooning, personalities should be even more obvious because you have the liberty of pushing them more through caricatured designs, expressions and body language. Which leads me to the following sketch:

Just for fun, I thought I'd try redesigning the Fairy characters as caricatures of these actresses, cartooned in a Disney style. I haven't drawn Tink herself though, for obvious copyright reasons aside from the fact we already know what she looks like. Is this what I think the final designs should be? Not necessarily, as I think they could be explored more in various ways and then simplified and refined more for the final models. But I genuinely believe this makes for a better starting point - to try and create distinct individuals that suggest their specific personality type through the visual designs. This is what Disney has historically always been so brilliant at in their classic animated features. Female attractiveness should not all derive from just one template - variety is the key to engaging the viewer's interest! I know there is the art talent at Disney to pull it off - but why are the artists not calling the shots?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Generically Speaking...

Katie Rice has just posted a very thoughtful analysis of "generic" versus "specific" female character designs over on her blog. What I like about the way she's written it is that she is not slamming generic design when it has a visual appeal (which does have its place), but rather, showing how designs with a more unique individuality can be more interesting to the viewer. I've long been an admirer of Katie's art, as I feel she's a naturally funny cartoonist who also manages to bring out not only great humour, but also some real humanity in her cartoon sketches. Her girls do not display a cloying cuteness, but instead she taps into the mindset of young adolescent girls, somehow bringing out an endearing goofy side in addition to their cute femininity. She's even got a term for her special brand of drawing girls: "Retarded Cute". One of my favourite posts is this one recalling her high school girlfriends. I find it very charming and funny. By the way, this drawing to the left is one of her many self-caricature sketches. Katie has a goodnatured way of lampooning life, even when drawing herself.

Unfortunately, there is an awful lot of art out there in the world of animation and especially consumer products that is extremely generic and not even aesthetically appealing. Look at these "Bratz" characters for example. In fact, I'm rather loathe to even call them "characters" at all, as that term would imply that there is some personality there. From having looked at much of the art on "Bratz", I can honestly state that there is absolutely no personality to be found in these designs whatsoever. None of the characters are capable of emoting - their faces are frozen in one generic, non-expression. And as you can see, there is no discernible distinction between the girls, save for different clothes and hair colour. Facially they look to me like five identical little clones of Angelina Jolie!

Remarkably, even the folks at Disney are content to add to the generic glut with their "Disney Princesses" line of merchandise. I would like to state for the record that I have always admired and championed the Disney classic animated features, so it pains me to see how these characters are now being handled by Consumer Products. The concept is an awkward one to begin with, actually. If you study the merchandise art out there, you will notice that these princesses, though posed together, will never acknowledge or interact with each other because they are all from separate character "universes". If they're on the cover of a book, the content of the book itself has them portrayed separately in their own stories. But on the cover they are posed as if in some inane Vanity Fair photo shoot, looking out at the viewer, never at each other. So right away the "Disney Princesses" is a concept with inherent problems. Besides, these girls were always more interesting within the context of their own films, surrounded by colourful supporting characters that they could work off of, being part of an appealing ensemble. Taken out of that context they are not particularly interesting.

What I particularly object to is the way they are handled in the art, always highly airbrushed to the point where they lack definition of tonal value. But the worst thing about them in my opinion, is the way their designs have been homogenized, their expressions reduced to vacuous smiles and their features becoming too similar, so that they start looking like all the same character. Though I understand the reason for this, for example the more angular design of Aurora being rounded down to fit in with the other girls, I find the process rather insulting to the great Disney artists who brought those characters to life onscreen.

Likewise, these drawings of Tinker Bell and the new "Disney Fairies" marketing program leave much to be desired. To be fair, any one of these characters I'd consider to be visually appealing in their design as separate entities, but collectively they suffer from the same problem as "Bratz" - all are identical if not for their costumes, hair and, in this case, skin colour. The tragic thing is, it doesn't have to be this way. In fact, I suspect if this were placed completely in the hands of the talented artists that work at Disney, these characters would show more individual distinction in design. I'm convinced it's the executives in Disney's Consumer Products division that have mandated this appalling blandness of design, as these types rarely show good taste when it comes to the art aesthetic.

Coincidentally, this reminds me of a project I worked on back a few years ago for a merchandising concept entitled "Bella May". The title character was an all-American type girl of about 15, and had a group of friends that included the prerequisite girls of different ethnic background. Unfortunately, in the rough concepts that they'd had someone come up with (pictured at left), all five girls looked identical, just like my complaints about "Bratz" and the new "Disney Fairies", despite the fact that one was supposed to be Asian, one Black, and one Italian. Now, I don't have a problem with overtly politically correct concepts so long as each character is treated as a distinct personality. It's when they are homogenized into all practically the same design that it offends my artistic sensibilities. Anyway, the folks putting this program together had been referred to me by a publisher I'd been working for and they knew these characters were in need of a massive overhaul.

Since they'd agreed to my terms that I'd want to redesign them so they all looked more like the nationalities they were supposed to be in addition to trying to capture the personalities better as described in their character bible, I decided to take on the project. The finished pencil art on the left is what I finally arrived at after exploring different ways of portraying each girl based on her character description. However, the initial designs had to start with some sort of reference material so I'd have a better idea of what I was trying to do and that their designs would have some basis in reality, though caricatured into appealing cartoons.

My first step, therefore, was to start compiling reference photos of girls of that age. I recall looking through department store catalogues and sketching various young girls, as well as collecting a bunch of images through Google Images. (The cartoonist's best friend!) The fact is, though, there is an unfortunate trend today in some members of various ethnic groups not wanting to see what they consider to be "stereotyped" depictions of themselves, therefore one is always having to be careful in the way these things are handled. Disney is constantly under fire for this (always unfairly), which makes me think that their lookalike fairies is their way of playing it safe and avoiding controversy. It shouldn't be this way of course - nothing should be sacred where cartooning is concerned, and anybody should be fair game for the art of caricature. However, I do like to make sure that my cartoons have some basis in reality, for the simple reason that I can learn more by studying real human types rather than just trying to make things up from scratch. This makes for richer personalities in my opinion. These rough sketches were made after trying different approaches, maybe combining different physical aspects from several reference photos to come up with a satisfying character type that seemed to suggest the right personality I was looking for.

The people I was working for were very nice and they liked what I'd come up with. They paid me upon delivery but, sadly however, this project never did get off the ground. I think they had underestimated the costs involved in starting up a merchandising venture like this and got cold feet about it. It's too bad "Bella May" got cancelled, as I was hoping to develop these characters further and, hopefully, work on the actual artwork for the various merchandise. Ah well, it was not to be, but at least it was fun to revisit this project in today's blog post.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Kung Fu Panda

Admittedly, I'm not that keen on CG animated films compared to traditional drawn animation. For me, animation is still first and foremost about drawn cartoons that seemingly spring to life on the big screen. However, CG films have been steadily improving in their ability to show organic, "Squash and Stretch" character animation, so I must give them credit where it's due.

I just saw Dreamworks' latest film, "Kung Fu Panda", the other day and have to say that for the most part I was very impressed. As one who personally loathes the "Shrek" films, I was glad to see that "Kung Fu Panda" was refreshingly free of all the stupid pop culture humour that I usually associate with the Dreamworks product. In fact, it is a pretty good script with a slight but quite serviceable plot. Particularly impressive is the visual look of the film. The art direction is quite beautiful in its depiction of the Chinese landscape: all lyrical form and colour. As my forte is character design, I also have to state how appealing the characters are in terms of shape, colour and movement.

Martial arts films have never been my thing, so I can't say I was enthralled by all of the kung fu action, especially the battle between the "Furious Five" and the villainous Tai Lung on the bridge. However, I do understand that the filmmakers were hoping to appeal to fans of martial arts films, so I don't begrudge them skewing it to that audience where they could. From an animation point of view, though, I don't think animation has ever been the best medium to show that kind of fast action, as a lot of it fails to read clearly. Which brings me to my real concern with this film, and that is action at the expense of characterization.

In regard to characterization, I feel they did an admirable job at developing the relationship between the clumsy panda, Po, and the kung fu Master, Shifu. These animated performances I thought were top-notch. The animators deserve a lot of praise here, though I think it's only fair to acknowledge the vocals by Jack Black and Dustin Hoffman too, as these two actors gave a lot of personality in their dialogue to give the animators something really fun to animate in terms of body language and facial expression. Hoffman's performance was a real pleasure, considering this was his first role in an animated film, I believe. And the battle over the bowl of dumplings was terrific as well-choreographed visual humour.

But this is also where I have a big problem with the film, as Dreamworks has also hired a bunch of big name actors to voice the "Furious Five" group of kung fu animals. The problem is, having paid all that money to be able to put Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan and Lucy Liu on the marquee, they haven't given them anything much to do. In fact, if I hadn't already read that they were in the cast, I'd have been none the wiser as to who the voices were, as none of them are given any significant amount of dialogue to perform, nor do any of them have particularly notable vocal qualities to begin with! Clearly, Dreamworks has only hired them for marketing purposes, as these actors really bring nothing to the table, though their relatively small amount of dialogue suggests that they really haven't been given an opportunity to show their potential either. I was hoping that Lucy Liu, in the role of a viper, might have been fun had she been allowed to revisit her "Ling" character from "Ally McBeal", for more comedic venomous dialogue. But, alas, she was denied the opportunity. As it is, these five characters don't amount to real personalities on screen, with only the Tigress showing some slight characterization as a jealous type who expected to be the chosen one.

Likewise, I felt that the Five were wasted in terms of their visual potential too. If one is using animals to portray their namesake kung fu moves, why not also use the animals' physical forms and personalities for more comedic effect in devising appropriate sight gags? When I teach "Anthropomorphism" in my Character Design class at Sheridan, one of the film clips I like to show is the soccer match from Disney's "Bedknobs and Broomsticks". This is a wonderful example of casting animals as human types, yet still allowing much of the animal's own physical traits and perceived personality to dictate the humour. All of the gags in this clip are unique to the individual animals and the way they might relate to each other in the wild. Here is that clip to illustrate what I mean. I really think "Kung Fu Panda" missed an opportunity in not utilizing the animal identities of the "Furious Five" to full effect.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Bye Bye Birdie

Back in the early 1960s, there seemed to be a plethora of singing Bobbys: Darin, Rydell, Vinton, Vee, Curtola, etc. etc. Well, when it comes to singing Bobbys, mostly I'm a fan of the great Bobby Darin, and I'll likely be doing a post on him sometime in the near future. But I also favoured Bobby Rydell, who, like Darin, brought a bit of that swinging Sinatra sound to the image of the teen rock and roll idol to create a sound that had a more lasting appeal. A couple weeks ago, I had the great pleasure of seeing Bobby Rydell in concert at Stage West here in Mississauga. I'm happy to report that Mr. Rydell, now 66, is still in very fine singing voice. Actually, I prefer the way his voice has matured as an adult, over the teen idol voice he had back at the start of his career, as it puts him very much in the realm of Sinatra, Vic Damone, Tony Bennett, etc.

Prior to going to see him in concert, I had drawn a caricature of both he and Ann-Margret in their roles in 1963's "Bye Bye Birdie", the musical that created some good-natured fun by spoofing Elvis's being drafted by the U.S. Army. The Elvis type character is fictionalized as the gyrating teen heartthrob,"Conrad Birdie", hence the title of the show. Bobby Rydell played the hapless boyfriend, "Hugo Peabody", being ignored by Ann-Margret's all-American girl,"Kim McAfee", who has been randomly chosen to give Birdie his one last kiss before the army gets him. The movie is a lot of fun and gives both Bobby and Ann-Margret an opportunity to really show off their song and dance skills. I think Ann-Margret is a phenomenal performer who wasn't given enough venues to display her musical talents onscreen. She's also terrific with Elvis himself in "Viva Las Vegas", which she made the following year, both films having been directed by George Sidney. It doesn't surprise me that she went on to great success on the Vegas stage, singing and dancing up a storm after those skills seemed to not be in high demand at the movies anymore.

I was pleased to see that Bobby Rydell still enjoys the film role, as he does a medley in his show of most of the songs from the score, while a montage of film clips plays on the screen behind him. As it turns out, Bobby Rydell was good friends with Bobby Darin back then, and he did a marvelous tribute to his late friend by singing a medley of his big hits. Of course Rydell performed most of his own big hits, such as "Wild One", "Volare", and "Sway", the latter song's swinging arrangements having likely inspired the more recent rendition by Michael Bublé.

Though I was hoping to present the framed caricature in person to Bobby Rydell, I'm afraid that turned out not to be possible, but I did manage to get it to him via the show's local promoter, who also got Bobby to autograph an additional print for me as I'd requested. I was told he got a real kick out of it, anyway.

So now, what better way to end off but to post the clip from "Bye Bye Birdie" that I'd based this caricature on. It's my favourite scene in the film, as it shows Ann-Margret at her sexiest as they all sing the swinging "A Lot of Livin' To Do". Enjoy!

Animals as "Human Types"

Mark Mayerson has been posting scene breakdowns from Disney's "101 Dalmatians" over on his blog, and adding his analysis of story and characterization in addition to detailing who animated what. He's just gotten up to my favourite sequence: The "Twilight Bark", which leads us to the characters of The Captain, Sgt. Tibbs, and The Colonel. My reasons for liking this particular sequence so much is that it's a prime example of what I appreciate so much about Disney in their ability to create rich personalities even when working within a relatively short amount of screen time. In this sequence, we are introduced to The Captain (a horse), Sergeant Tibbs (a cat), and The Colonel (a sheep dog).

Even before we first see the horse poke his head through the stable window, we've already been given a clue as to who lives in this old country house from the address sign above the gate that reads: "H.M. Forces Ret. Maj. General S.F. Smedley, The 9th Queens Royal Lancers". Previously in this film, we've seen how the Disney artists have created a distinct similarity between the various dogs and their humans, especially in the opening sequence that shows the female potential mates that Pongo is sizing up, out for a walk with their look-alike human "pets". Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the animals that live in this country home would share some of the background of their master, a former military man now retired to a quiet life of farming.

Here are the mosaics that Mark has put together with scene credits courtesy of Hans Perk:

When I cover the topic of anthropomorphic cartoon animals in my Character Design class, I try to show through examples like these, how Disney has always created animals as specific human types, as opposed to simply creating cartoon renditions of animals. The horse, cat and sheepdog depicted in this sequence are prime examples of the Disney artists' craft. When we watch this sequence play out, we are viewing them not merely as animals, but as familiar human types that we have seen in many a British wartime drama. In my drawn interpretation posted below, I have sketched out the human characters that these animals seem to suggest to me personally.

The Captain is a big workhorse, though from the blanket he wears sporting a royal emblem, and other props like a sword, bugle and banner shown in the background of the stable, one can imagine that in his younger days he was a sleek, athletic soldier's steed on the field of battle. But now he has matured into a solid workhorse, built for towing a heavy farm plow. In human terms I envision him as a solid, dependable man, perhaps in his late 40s/early 50s, with broad features like what I have drawn below.

Sergeant Tibbs is a small, slim cat, definitely designed for speed and being able to slip through tight spaces, as he will have to do later when he's trying to find the missing puppies in the De Vil place. As such, he suggests a younger man, perhaps about 20-25, who is a recent recruit that is eager to do a good job and please his superiors. I love the way he zips around; all quick staccato movements, always alert and at attention. In the pleasant, wide-eyed young fellow I have envisioned as his human counterpart, I can't help but think of him as a combination of a young Dudley Moore and Radar O'Reilly from M*A*S*H.

Finally, we have The Colonel, a shaggy haired sheepdog, which seems like the perfect breed to depict this character type. The Colonel is most definitely the "Colonel Blimp" cliché of British newspaper cartoons and war films. His bushy muzzle suggests a big walrus mustache, while the shaggy hair above his eyes acts as bushy eyebrows more than as hair per se. In fact, I rather like to envision him as being bald, with just an unkempt fringe of hair around his ears. The Colonel would certainly be an older gent in his 70s perhaps, sadly now long past his prime as a competent military leader in his younger days. Even more tragically, he doesn't seem to realize this fact himself!

Again, I am amazed by how the Disney writers and artists have created such rich character types in such a relatively short amount of screen time. Through their dialogue and actions we learn much about the relationship between these three characters. Though The Colonel is now a somewhat less competent old codger, hard of hearing and with other faltering capacities, neither The Captain nor Sgt. Tibbs have the heart to let on. Their respect for the old man is so great that they are careful to gently correct his mistakes so as not to let him lose face, allowing him to continue acting under the delusion that he is still in the prime of life and completely in charge of the situation at hand. I've always thought this to be a very sweet sequence in the film because of that subtext, cleverly communicated through the acting.

In conclusion, I would hope that all students of animation try to analyze films like "101 Dalmatians" and other classics, both animated and live-action from that era, in the hopes of learning the craft of creating rich characters on screen. Remember, the dialogue is only a small part of the equation. Characterization through strong visual designs, distinct personalities, and accompanying body language and physical quirks is what will result in performances that will entertain and engage your audience.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Ladies and Gentlemen....CINEMA RETRO!

The caricature of Harvey Korman and Dick Martin that I'd posted the other day was very kindly acknowledged by the good folks at the Cinema Retro website. Cinema Retro is a site that I check out regularly, as they specialize in covering the films (and some TV shows) of the 60's and 70's - an era that I just love. Hopefully some of you have clicked on the link that I've had on my sidebar for some time, in order to take a look at their site yourselves. In addition to the website, Cinema Retro also publishes a very high quality magazine that I've just recently started subscribing to after having bought a couple issues on the newsstand.

It's glossy pages are chock full of articles covering the likes of Frank Sinatra as "Tony Rome", James Coburn as "Our Man Flint", Hammer horror films, interviews with luscious lovelies like Luciana Paluzzi and Elke Sommer, and of course, ongoing articles on.......Bond........James Bond. Furthermore, it is almost entirely devoid of ads, save for a few at the back that are all related to the magazine's subject matter. It's definitely a 60's film fan's dream publication come true! Since they were nice enough to link to my recent caricature, I would like to dedicate the following caricature of Sean Connery to those good folks. (Sorry it's a post James Bond depiction of Mr. Connery - I think I'll have to do another one of him sometime as 007!) Again, my thanks!