Saturday, June 26, 2010

Viva Las Vegas!

Back in early June, my Mom and I went out to Las Vegas for a week's vacation. Mom's a veteran of Vegas, having been out there nearly a dozen times over the last 20 years. This was my first visit there, however, and I had a heck of a good time! Here's just a few of the more than 400 photos I took. (No, I won't bore you with them all.)

We explored all of the big hotels. Many of them are themed both in exteriors and interiors, in a style reminiscent of Disney's theme parks. I particularly liked The Paris Hotel, as well as Caesars Palace:

We stayed at The Flamingo Hotel, where I made lots of new friends!:

We took a side trip out to Arizona one day to see a great big hole in the ground:

Of course, we had to stop in at Madame Tussaud's to visit with some old friends too. Here I am swingin' with my pallies, Frank, Dean and Sammy:

I hung out with Shirley Maclaine for a bit:

It was great to see one of my favourite gals. Marilyn was of course looking spectacular!:

I swapped card tricks with a magician, providing my own souvenir deck that was kindly presented to me by the friendly folks who line Las Vegas Blvd:

In fact, I used my collector cards to help Hef choose some new girlfriends:

I was even able to spare a few of them for Elvis, who gratefully responded, "Thank yuh, thank yuh veruh much!"

I ran into a few contemporary stars too. Here I am chatting up Angelina, trying to convince her to ditch whatsisname so we can duck out for a night on the town:

Since that didn't end well, I decided instead to give Buffy a hickey:

Finally, Mom and I did our best to help out President Obama with his busy schedule.
"Hello, what's that again? You say you're the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Hooper? I'm sorry, but President Obama isn't in right now..."

Monday, June 21, 2010

Happy Birthday, Al Hirschfeld!

If Al Hirschfeld, the celebrated caricaturist were still around today, he would have been hitting his 107th birthday. As it is, however, the old boy passed away back in January 2003, just a few months shy of turning 100! Still, he had an amazing career drawing for many venues over his many decades, and was primarily associated with creating linear depictions of the Broadway shows for his regular stint with The New York Times.

Oddly, though, my first introduction to Hirschfeld's art was through one of the full colour covers he'd illustrated for TV Guide, which depicted the popular variety series, The Sonny and Cher Show, of which I was a big fan in my early teen years. I was entranced with the illustration, as it showed me a very different approach to caricature than what I had been then enjoying in MAD Magazine by the likes of Mort Drucker and Jack Davis. Whereas the two MAD artists drew more of what I call "distorted portrait" caricatures, exaggerating the features, yet still maintaining a sense of anatomical structure ( albeit Davis doing it looser and more cartoony than Drucker), Al Hirschfeld had a more stylistic and playful approach, abstracting the form into simple shapes and flowing lines. I cut out and saved that TV Guide cover and still have it today, as shown here.

I was a pretty bold little guy back then, and I was determined to get a fan letter to Al Hirschfeld, so I wrote to him care of TV Guide, being oblivious at the time to his more famous career illustrating for the Arts section of The New York Times. Well, the good folks at TV Guide actually forwarded my letter to Al, and it wasn't too long before I received a very nice response back from him. I ended up corresponding with him several more times over the next few years and I'll post several of these letters here for all to enjoy:

Some years later I ended up going to New York to freelance for Disney's Character Merchandise art department, the tale of which I'll save for another post. Prior to going there, I was determined to look up Al Hirschfeld when I was in town, and I took down one of my books of his art in the hopes of getting it autographed. After working in the Disney office the first week, I decided to try getting in touch with Al early on the weekend. Sure enough, he was listed in the NYC phone directory, so I gave him a call. Much to my excitement, he answered the phone and, when I explained that I used to correspond with him a few years earlier, he remembered me and told me I should come down to visit him that afternoon in his home studio!

I can still recall my excitement and nervous apprehension as I boarded the transit bus that would let me off within an easy walk of the old brownstone that he lived in. Once there, I rang the bell and was met at the door by Al's sweet wife, Dolly. She said Al was expecting me and that I could just make my way up the two flights of stairs to where he was working in his studio on his latest piece for The NY Times. One thing I recall was all of the framed originals that lined the stairway, including that painted cover featuring Sonny and Cher. So, as excited as I was to get upstairs to meet Al, I was also trying to take in all of the glorious original art I was passing on the way up!

When I got to the top of the stairs, I remember they ended facing into his studio, and there silhouetted by the light of a picture window, sitting in his antique barber's chair at his antique drafting table, was the great man himself, Al Hirschfeld! Though Al tended to have a somewhat stern, no nonsense appearance, he was actually a very warm and generous man, and I think he took a certain delight in showing off a lot of his original art to this young fan. I remember him showing me the piece he was currently working on (a Broadway show featuring Ellen Burstyn, as I recall) and I was struck by the size that he worked at. It seems to me that the illustration board was about 24 x 36, and Al showed me how he built up the thick and thin lines through multiple strokes of the tiny Gillott Crow Quill pen nibs he favoured. He said that the nibs were relatively fragile, and that he might go though nearly a dozen on such a large illustration. Of course, he always finished up a drawing by hiding a few NINA's throughout, as that was the name of his only daughter whose birth he'd celebrated with that novelty, and had continued it on ever since.

He then took a break from what he was working on and proceeded to pull out a bunch of his recent originals from a big steel flat file cabinet. One thing I remember well was when he showed me his annual piece for The NY Times where he would depict notable personalities from different fields, such as movies, literature, science, dance, etc. in a beautifully composed montage of figures. I had a chuckle when he started pointing to the actors depicted, saying "That's whatsisname from that movie, whatchamacallit...", as I suspect that his inability to recall their names was mostly due to his not being particularly impressed with that generation of film stars. After all, I had remembered him stating in one of his books that he always favoured movie stars that were larger than life personalities like W.C Fields and Zero Mostel, and that he found contemporary actors too ordinary and mundane with their more realistic acting styles.

After a while, Dolly called up to Al to let him know it was tea time, a ritual she had retained from her native Germany and that Al was happy to share with her. They insisted I join them for tea and cake and I remember just thinking what a lovely couple they were and how gracious they were to me. Unfortunately, the visit had to end soon after, as Al had to get back to finishing his drawing before sunset, as he always preferred to work by natural daylight rather than incandescent bulbs. Al happily signed my book and he and Dolly bid me adieu.

That afternoon spent with Al and Dolly Hirschfeld will always remain one of the happiest memories of my artistic career. Obviously, Al Hirschfeld's own stylistic approach has heavily influenced my own - I don't deny it. Still, I've tried to learn what I could through studying and analyzing his work, yet applying the approach of forming a "visual impression" of the subject, then abstracting the physical design and inner personality in my own way as much as I can. But he will always be my artistic mentor, his spirit and playfulness of line always helping to guide me in my own work. The caricature that heads up this post was one I drew of him sometime after having visited him. I sent him the original as a thank you gift, and asked if he could send me back the copy with his autograph. As you can see, he also added a NINA in the hair!

Please check out more of Hirschfeld's great caricatures at the website of his official representative, The Margo Feiden Galleries.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Finally, Something I Like!

I saw this over on Cartoon Brew yesterday and was so impressed with it that I felt compelled to comment on it here. It's just a short promo for the Palm Springs International Short Fest, yet somehow it has excited me more than any animated feature has in recent years. It was created by a studio called MAKE in Minneapolis, and the director/lead animator was Andrew Chesworth. Interestingly, all of the comments over at Cartoon Brew have been enthusiastically positive in their praise of the film - which is an unusual situation at The Brew, where there is generally mixed feelings on most animated clips posted. Anyway, watch it first, then I'll discuss it:

Here's why I like it so much. First of all, it's a spoof of that oh so familiar scene in 40's film noir where the damsel in distress shows up at the office of the hardboiled private detective begging him to take the case. Strangely, film noir has never been done in a full animated feature, the closest thing being the animation/live action hybrid, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, so I think it's a genre that would be ripe for an animated feature. And like this short, I'd want to see that feature animated in glorious, traditional, hand-drawn animation, not CG! Take a look at the overall style of this short - it's so unabashedly a cartoon. The characters are all highly caricatured and stylized: the hero in bold angular outlines and blocky shapes, the femme fatale all in sexy curves. The animated movement is equally cartoony in it's timing. Also, look at how distinct all of the character designs are and how they communicate immediately to the viewer what those characters are all about. The hero is reminiscent of tough guy actors with chiseled features like George C. Scott or Richard Conte. He's not one of those pretty boy metrosexuals that have been dominating animated features for the last 20 years. Neither is the girl generic in any way. Her features are exaggerated to show her sexiness and her deceptive personality - look at that imposing jawline that shows her to be a tough cookie. I also love the highly designed curly hair, as it shows what drawn animation can do so much better than CG, which is a slave to literal form. I hope that my Sheridan students are taking note, as this short film is a great example of what I'm always stressing to see in your Character Design assignments.

As far as I'm concerned, this short is a breath of fresh air, so different from the stagnation of semi-realistic character design that we've been seeing in so many hand-drawn features of the last 15 to 20 years. Interestingly, John Kricfalusi has been taking a stab at the generic male leads that are all looking too similar, culminating in the latest attempt in the upcoming Tangled, with the hero, Flynn Rider. I happen to agree with much of what John says in this regard, as I'm getting damn tired of what I've come to call the "Rock Star" look of all male leads in the latter-day films of Disney, Dreamworks, and a few other studios. Disney artists should check out some classic Hollywood films of the past and start studying real men like Gregory Peck, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Gene Kelly, etc. etc, so as to get away from this current trend of designing longhaired metrosexuals. This short film with the film noir detective hopefully will inspire some more satisfying heroes in future animated features. My sincere congratulations to Andrew Chesworth and his talented crew for creating a small gem of animated brilliance!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Happy Birthday, Nancy Sinatra!

Today the gal with the boots celebrates her birthday. Nancy Sinatra was the first born of Frank's three kids and was very much Daddy's little girl. Though she may not have had the vocal range of her Dad, nor his singing career longevity, Nancy Sinatra was a hugely popular and iconic singer of the swingin' 60's. Interestingly, though she was ostensibly of the rock 'n' roll generation of that era, her singing style still owed a lot to the more traditional crooning style of her father and his contemporaries. She had a string of hits as both a solo artist as well as a number of great duets alongside Lee Hazlewood, the singer/record producer who also wrote most of her songs, including her famous, These Boots Are Made For Walkin'.

I really like Nancy Sinatra's singing style. Although her vocal range was somewhat limited, there was always a warmth and sincerity in her delivery. Nancy had a bit of a revival a few years ago when her rendition of Bang Bang (previously a hit for Cher) was picked up to be used in the opening titles of Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill: Volume One, setting the melancholy tone for the bride left for dead played by Uma Thurman. Here is Nancy singing Bang Bang when she guested on her Dad's 1966 TV special, Frank Sinatra: A Man and His Music - Part II. I watched this appearance to draw the crazy frilled dress, though my sketch of her face was done from her own 1967 TV special, Movin' With Nancy, which is also available on DVD. The second YouTube clip is a segment from that special, featuring Nancy and Lee Hazlewood singing Jackson, a song made popular by Johnny Cash and June Carter.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

It's Quiz Time!!

I've been a member of the International Society of Caricature Artists (ISCA, formerly NCN) for a couple years now. One of my favourite of their online forums is the "Let's Draw" section, where we're now into a second year of celebrating famous birthdays by inviting ISCA members to post their caricature sketches of the chosen notable personality of the day. Some of the ones I've drawn have also been posted here on my blog on their actual birthday, but some others have slipped through the cracks since I had drawn them sometime after the fact. Rather than let these particular samples go unseen, I've decided to post a bunch of them here as a fun little quiz for you. They are indeed a motley crew that comprises personalities of both the present and past, some from the entertainment industry, others not - some maybe a bit obscure! So let's see how many of them you folks can recognize. No, there's no prize, but the first one to correctly identify all eight in the comments section gets bragging rights. (ISCA members are not eligible, so sit on your hands and let the others play!) Ready, set, go...