Tuesday, July 31, 2007

"Bland" Be Banned!

John Kricfalusi has another provocative topic regarding "bland" character designs that can be found in this recent post. For the record, though I admire John's knowledge of Hollywood cartoons greatly, I often respectfully disagree with his stance on the characters and stories in the Disney features, as I find he's too dismissive of a lot of wonderful art. However, I do see his point this time around in regards to the way kids are often designed in the Disney films. I'll admit there is a generic template that Disney has adhered to in many of their kid characters, with only minor variations in the facial types.

John has posted a bunch of photos of famous Hollywood kids from live-action films of that bygone era, which he rightly acknowledges as having more personality traits and physical variation than their animated film counterparts. Just for fun, I've decided to draw some quick caricatures of 6 of his photo examples in an attempt to show how these particular kids could be adapted as animatible cartoon characters, with an eye to exploring different head shapes and facial features to show distinction of character "types", as well as unique and interesting silhouettes. The likenesses are only so-so, by the way. What I'm really trying to do here is show how a character designer could start with photo reference of a specific "type" as a jumping off point to creating a design that communicates that particular personality to the audience. So here they are:

1) Beaver Cleaver - The All-American Boy: I've also added a baseball cap to this likeness to exaggerate his distinction as the cleancut kid that would make his Mom proud, despite his propensity to get into typical boyhood dilemmas. Physically, the Beav has downward sloping eyes, buck teeth, and a square face. His facial features suggest a trusting look that communicates his naivete and basic goodness.

2) Bobby Driscoll - The Mischievous Imp: Bobby has pixie-like features in his slanted up twinkling eyes, small pug nose, and devilish grin. His face shape and placement of features are a series of 'V' shapes. You just know this kid is up to some youthful prank, but you can't help but like him. In his teenage years, Bobby of course was the voice and model for Disney's "Peter Pan". Here then is where I would disagree with John's assessment in a previous post of Pan as being "generic" in design. Pan was a deliberate caricature of Bobby Driscoll and is therefore quite a "specific" type in my opinion.

3) Will Robinson - The Inquisitive Whiz Kid: His long face, vertically stretched facial design, and slight build suggest a kid that would rather read books and build model kits than go out and play sports. He is the typical "Brainiac", quite fluent in math and handy on the computer.

4) Alfalfa - The Gangly Casanova: He of course was the oddball, awkward looking stringbean among "The Little Rascals", with his stretched out, skinny physical build, big expressive eyes, and that cowlick that shot straight up like an antenna. Yet despite his physical ungainliness, he fancied himself a "Lady's Man", always ready to serenade some young cutie with his off-key singing. I'd suggest that Disney's "Ichabod Crane" is the adult equivalent of this character type.

5) Opie Taylor - The Bumpkin: With his goofy gap-toothed smile, tussled "Sheep Dog" red hair, and a generous helping of freckles, Opie is the kid that's just made for running barefoot through a pasture, climbing trees, and gnawing on a big slice of watermelon. No big city living for this small town boy.

6) Danny Partridge - The Conniving Schemer - (I had to find a different photo to work from to draw this guy) His face is wider horizontally than the others and his narrow, shifty eyes also follow across that side to side facial pattern. His mod, uncombed 70's era long hair communicates that "Rock Star" self-assured sleaziness. You know by looking at him that he's up to no good, trying to make a fast buck by hustling some poor unsuspecting schlemiel.

These drawings are by no means the only ways to portray these distinctively different kid "types". There are so many varied approaches one could take to accomplish the same goal. The key, though, is making a concerted effort to study real faces of kids in order to come up with more "specific" characters as John K is always trying to encourage. Otherwise, by just designing something out of your head with no research, you're likely to end up with the same "bland" or "generic" character designs that we've seen in countless animated features and TV shows. As my Sheridan Character Design students soon become aware of each year, I insist on them keeping a sketchpad and using it to record all of the wonderful array of character types they see all around them. Also, I prefer that they take a more "caricatured" approach to drawing people, as this is the best way to develop unique and interesting personality types through humourous exaggeration and visual shorthand. Again, I'd like to thank John Kricfalusi for this interesting topic as a springboard for me to expand on the theme here on my blog.

Friday, July 27, 2007

A Squirrel in the Rough

Here's a little character I've been playing with for awhile. I've had an idea for a story that's been kicking around in my noggin involving a squirrel and some birds. I'm hoping to develop it into a children's book. Anyway, this is the rough prototype for the rascal. (Actually, I think in several expressions he sort of looks like me!)

I'm posting these sketches as an example of what I am always suggesting to my Sheridan Animation students. That is, before finalizing a character design you should take it out for a "test drive" to see how it's working. A common mistake I've found is that a student will draw one or two views of a character and be instantly sold on it. I maintain that you should never nail down a character design until you've sketched it many times over, trying it out in various animated poses. Many's the time that I've found that a design that looked good to me initially proved to be awkward to move around into different poses. When that happens, always be prepared to make whatever modifications that may be necessary to make it work better.

In these 2 sets of sketches, I've just allowed my stream of consciousness to take over, doodling my squirrel in whatever pose and attitude that happens to flow out of my pencil naturally. None of these sketches are finished in any way and they may not even show him in altogether consistent proportions. In fact, sometimes I find that more ideal proportions may develop quite naturally through the repetition of drawing him out in different poses. Likewise, the facial features may evolve into a more appealing design through trying various moods and expressions, as well as tilts and angles of the head. Even my approach to construction is looser at this stage. To dwell too much on structure right away would be a hindrance to developing him as a little personality.

For me, this is what is most fun about drawing. I love to just do little rough sketches like these to get a performance on paper. Admittedly, I am much happier having made a career being a cartoonist in the print medium. The only way I would want to be involved in animation is if I could draw in this "organic", fully dimensional way that pleases me. I'm not much of a fan of today's flat, graphic styles, I'm afraid.

Monday, July 16, 2007

I Think I've Ustinov Ink On Sir Peter!

I've always had a fondness for the various British character actors I grew up watching. Here's one of my favourites - the wonderful Peter Ustinov. He's such a fun actor to draw as well, as he has such an expressive face with that broad nose, mischievous glint in his eyes, and a very unusual mouth shape. I've seen a fair number of his films and have drawn him many times, though these three are probably the only ones I took to finished ink line.
Here he is in perhaps the first role I saw him in when I was a kid, in Disney's 1968 comedy, "Blackbeard's Ghost". Watching it today, I feel that Ustinov's presence probably raised the film up from being just another lightweight Disney comedy to something rather inspired. It looked like he had great fun hamming it up in the role of the ghostly pirate trying as best he could to make amends for all his earthly wrongs, so as to break the witch's curse on him and set his soul to rest. On a side note, I recall that I had a tough time drawing his co-star, Dean Jones, a Disney regular throughout the 60's and 70's. I drew this one originally for a fan club newsletter down in the Walt Disney World area, back when I used to work there in the early 90's.
This drawing dates back to 1979. (I feel so old!) Peter Ustinov was playing "King Lear" on the Stratford stage and my parents and I went to see the show. I had also done a full-colour painting of this, which I had framed up and presented to him backstage after the performance. "King Lear" is a very long play, and it was clear that Mr. Ustinov was tired, but he was still very gracious and chatted with us for about 10 minutes before heading home. It was quite a thrill to meet him and, yes, I got his autograph on my drawing!
This last drawing of Sir Peter Ustinov (yes, he'd been knighted by then!) dates back to 1996. He's definitely looking older and the bagginess of the flesh around his eyes has reduced the upwards slant that was evident in my earlier drawings. Just a year earlier, I'd taken my Dad to see him in a one-man show he did at The Royal Alex Theatre in Toronto called "An Evening With Peter Ustinov". Ustinov was an extremely witty raconteur, and the audience just loved him. My Dad had also been a longtime fan of his and it was a really special occasion for me to spend with him, as it was usually pretty tough to convince him to go see a show. He seemed quite keen to see this one, I'm happy to say, and he thoroughly enjoyed it. A very happy memory...

Here's a short video of Sir Peter in action. You get a great sense of his storytelling abilities along with his great gift for mimicry. There's also a quick glimpse of one of his more famous fans sitting in the audience.

Finally, I can't resist ending off with the role that Peter Ustinov is famous for to Disney animation fans - Prince John in "Robin Hood". Here's a compilation of clips somebody was good enough to cobble together on YouTube. I think there is a very strong likeness of the actor in the broad lion nose and bright, slanted up eyes. Also, as I mentioned earlier, Ustinov has an unusual mouth shape with the upper lip protruding over his lower lip and the corners of his mouth stretched back when he talks. The Disney animators, most notably Ollie Johnston, have interpreted his mouth movements into the animation, resulting in a character design that is capable of producing that distinctive vocal sound. This is something I always tell my students at Sheridan to pay attention to in their own character designs - that the design has to be credible with the voice coming out of it. By analyzing the mouth shape and jaw structure, you can tailor the design perfectly to being able to create the given vocal quality and mannerisms.

Sadly, the world said goodbye to Peter Ustinov in 2004. Happily though, he'd had a long and productive life and career. I heartily recommend seeing his many great films. "Topkapi" and "Hot Millions" are both a hoot!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Ladies & Gentlemen, May I Present...

I've been teaching part-time for several years at Sheridan College in nearby Oakville, Ontario. Currently, I'm the Character Design Instructor for 2nd Year in the BAA Animation Program, which I prefer to having taught 1st Year as it allows me to get more involved with the subject of characterization rather than concentrating merely on the basics of construction. For me, the idea of getting that performance on paper (and ultimately onscreen by my students) is what really thrills me. Because of this, I am also very interested in another program here at the college.

Sheridan has also become rather renowned for its Music Theatre Program. I've seen a number of the Sheridan productions and have been very impressed with the high calibre of the students involved. And once they graduate after the three years, many of Toronto's big theatrical productions have benefited from their talent. Some of them even go on to international success. I'd like to introduce you to two of these fine talents.

In my last post, I talked about the contribution to Toronto theatre of Ed and David Mirvish. Several years ago, the Mirvishes brought the Broadway hit, "The Producers" to their Canon Theatre here in Toronto. Well known Canadian comic, Sean Cullen was cast as the bombastic Max Bialystock. But the two characters that really impressed me were played by Sheridan graduates, Michael Therriault, as accountant Leo Bloom, and Sarah Cornell, in the role of the Swedish bombshell Ulla. Here's a picture of me with Sarah and Michael backstage after seeing them in performance. I had given them prints of caricatures I had drawn from a TV interview with them I'd recently recorded from TV.

By the time he came to "The Producers", Michael had already had several roles on the Stratford stage and brought such a poignancy to his role as Leo Bloom that I felt his performance was the heart of the show. The character is a mixture of the neurotic and the sweetly naive, and I think Michael stressed the latter in his portrayal. Since then, Michael Therriault has gone on to play Canada's Tommy Douglas in the CBC TV miniseries, "Prairie Giant". Soon after that he originated the role of Gollum in the musical stage extravaganza, "The Lord of the Rings" which debuted here in Toronto last year before moving on to London this summer. He was one of only a couple performers, I believe, that was asked to continue on in the move to London and, despite the show having garnered mixed reviews, Michael's Gollum is usually singled out as one of the highpoints. As you can see from this photo, his portrayal of Gollum is nothing like the genial Michael Therriault himself!

The statuesque and lovely Sarah Cornell was just perfect for the role of Ulla in "The Producers". In fact, before originating the role on the Toronto stage, Sarah had initially auditioned for and won the role on Broadway, replacing Cady Huffman when she decided to step down, playing Ulla for several months in New York before transfering to the Toronto production. Not only is Sarah a wonderful singer/dancer, but she has a natural flair for comedy. Currently she can be seen onstage in the darkly comic, "Evil Dead - The Musical". I just saw her a few weeks ago in the show and she's hysterically funny, playing two separate roles no less! For this performance, Sarah was recently nominated for a Dora Award, which is the Canadian equivalent of the Tony. She and one of her friends and co-stars from "The Producers", Jonathan Monro, had also been starting to develop a cabaret act for which I had been commissioned to create a caricature for their presskit. Alas, they've had to put that on hold for awhile as these other opportunities have come along. I still hope they'll resume those plans one day, though, as I thought they were just superb together. Actually, I wish Sarah would also record a CD of the standards that she sings so beautifully.

Both Michael Therriault and Sarah Cornell are two performers to keep an eye on. They're sure to go on to even greater success in the future!

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

He Will Be Honestly Missed...

I am very sad to read that Canada's Ed Mirvish passed away this morning at the age of 92. Here's the story in this Globe and Mail article. "Honest Ed", as he was fondly nicknamed, was a beloved figure here in Toronto. In addition to the crazy discount store with that same moniker, Ed Mirvish was also responsible, along with his son David, for making Toronto a major player in the arena of live theatre, putting this city on the map alongside New York and London. It is that, of his many accomplishments, that I am personally most grateful for.

CBC's biography series, "Life and Times" broadcast a terrific profile on Ed a number of years ago. It was from recording and viewing that show that I had done this caricature of Ed and David Mirvish. Also, that show revealed that Ed and his wife Anne were ballroom dancing enthusiasts - a hobby that they took very seriously and were passionate about for several decades. Having been involved in ballroom dancing myself for over ten years, I can well appreciate and share their passion for this enjoyable art.

Ed Mirvish was that rarity of successful businessmen, in that he never forgot where he came from and was constantly giving back to the community. Toronto just loved him and we all will miss this wonderful man.

He Yam What Today's Cartoons Ain't

John Kricfalusi has a terrific post on his blog (link to his site at right) regarding the Fleischer "Popeye" cartoons now finally being released on DVD. I suspect John and I had similar childhoods, both being Ottawa boys. Back in the 1960's, Canadian kids only had access to our own home-grown TV channels: local affiliates of CBC, CTV and a handful of independents. We didn't get any American channels until the early 70's when cable was first introduced into Canadian households. As such, exposure to cartoons on TV was somewhat limited back then. "The Bugs Bunny / Roadrunner Hour" was carried on CBC Saturday evenings, and we had "The Wonderful World of Disney" (one of the titles of its various incarnations) every Sunday evening at 6 pm, also on CBC. Since Disney would only run a show with cartoons only once every five or six weeks or so, there really wasn't that much regular exposure to the Disney shorts, although that was still the era where Disney would have a couple of vintage cartoons accompany a new film release at the theatre, so it wasn't completely bleak.

However, that was also the era of the various kid's shows on local TV channels hosted by affable middle-aged fellows, sometimes in goofy costumes like "Howdy Doody's" Buffalo Bob. These shows were mainly comprised of whatever old theatrical cartoons were available to them cheaply to run to their heart's content. Fortunately, this meant that the old "Popeye" cartoons were on practically every day in lunchtime and after school timeslots. As such, back when I was really young, Popeye was my favourite cartoon character, by virtue of the fact that I had seen more of those cartoons than anything else at that time. Somewhere there's a photo of me at about age 5 or 6 holding these big solid plastic toy figurines of Popeye and Wimpy - great toys as I recall. I remember drawing Popeye and the gang all the time, (and the Goons!) and that was probably the catalyst that launched me into this lifelong pursuit of working as a professional cartoonist. Admittedly, as I saw more of the Disney animated features at the theatre in those formative years, they became my real passion in the medium, but I will always harbour a special fondness for Popeye the Sailor, and I will certainly be adding this new DVD set to my cartoon library.

PS: Rather than give my own summation of the Fleischer "Popeye" cartoons, I would rather point you to what John K. has written on his blog, as he certainly has covered all the bases far better than I could on why these cartoons are so great.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Jungle Gal!

As I look over these blog postings thus far, it occurs to me this place is in need of a bit more colour. Most of my personal art is, I'm afraid, in black and white ink line, so the colour pieces are going to be the exception to the rule. Anyway, here is one that started out as a pencil doodle that I then tacked up on my corkboard above my drawing table for inspiration. Some time later, my friend Adam was around asking if I could give him a quick painting demo to help introduce him to using gouache, my paint medium of choice.

I decided to grab this jungle girl doodle as a fun subject to use and proceeded to trace her down onto some illustration board using graphite paper. Prior to using graphite paper, however, I usually like to rub away most of the excess graphite, as it tends to be a bit greasy at full strength, making it more difficult to cover with the paint. Once on the board, I started to cover the main areas with mostly flat tones of colour, sometimes working in a bit of wet-on-wet, like in her hair, but mostly leaving the rendering to a layering of dry brush applications. I really like the dry brush approach with gouache, as blending it can be a pain in the butt and there is something so nicely illustrative about a clean, crisp dry brush technique.

Due to this just being a quick painting demo, I was working pretty fast and the result is certainly on the loose side. However, I really kind of like the spontaneity of it, rough spots and all. Just for fun, I later scanned it in and Photoshopped it onto an appropriate jungle photo background.

Like a lot of longtime cartoonist and illustrator friends and colleagues of mine, I really love the gouache paintings that used to be the norm in magazine and children's book illustration. I'll probably post some links soon to illustrators from the 50's and 60's whose work I really love in this medium.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

Here's a drawing I did about 15 years ago, I think. It was done originally for a newsletter regarding all things Disney that I used to contribute to back then. "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" is one of my favourite Disney live-action films. This is the type of film that I wish the Studio would do more of today with the kind of flair they used to be capable of. I suppose it isn't even possible anymore, though, as the look of that era of filmmaking was achieved through different means back then. Instead of the computerized imagery that supplements so much of today's epic films, back then they relied primarily on the skills of matte painters like the wonderful Peter Ellenshaw. I still think the results were far more lavish and appealing than what they do these days, but that's just me, I guess.