Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Have An Ollie Jolly Christmas!

I wrote about legendary Disney animator Ollie Johnston back in April of this year at the time of his passing. Though Ollie lived to a ripe old age, as well as outliving all of his fellow members of "The Nine Old Men", it was still a very sad occasion for me. Even though I had only met with both Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas on less than a dozen occasions, these two wonderful artists had kept in touch with me through the exchange of Christmas cards each year. I actually ended up on Ollie's list several years earlier than Frank's, so my cards from he and his wife Marie date back to the year 1985, just a year after I had started my own Disney career up here in the Canadian office before later relocating down to Florida's Walt Disney World.

These earlier ones in my collection are my favourites. (Click on them to see them MUCH bigger!) Ollie was in his 70's and there's still a real vitality in his drawings, similar to his rough animation in his years at Disney. There's also a running gag in these about poor Marie having to wear the mouse ears. I've only included some of the cards which feature Ollie's sketches by the way, as there are several later on where he instead printed humourous photos of he and Marie, where Marie still had to pose in the mouse ears! There are two (of three) cards here that show Ollie transforming into a deer while he and Frank were putting a great deal of labour into writing their book on "Bambi".

The 1993 card shows Ollie as he and Frank were working on their next book about "The Disney Villains", which is an overview of all of the villains that were developed for the films, not all of which Frank or Ollie had necessarily worked on so it's not as in-depth as their previous books. This also was their final publication, as they had now both hit 80 and were starting to feel their age. Ollie in particular was suffering from arthritic hands and therefore finding drawing a more painful task too, and you can see that his line is a little less sure than it had been, yet there still remains that vitality and feeling of inner life in these little sketches. 1995 marked the debut of Gypsy and Frisky, the two beloved dogs that Ollie and Marie had welcomed into their home. These two characters remained a fixture throughout most of Ollie's later Christmas cards.

The photo of Ollie at the top of this post is from his 2005 card - the year that he received the National Medal of Arts for his long artistic career, presented to him by President Bush at a ceremony at the White House in November. As you can imagine, this collection of Christmas cards from Ollie and Marie I cherish very much, especially now that this wonderful man has left us to be reunited with his beloved Marie. Ollie Johnston was one of my biggest artistic heroes and was extremely generous to me back when I was just a kid with a dream of working for Disney one day. I am grateful for the tremendous legacy he has left us, and my personal memories of having been fortunate enough to have known him as a friend.

Merry Christmas to you all, and thanks for continuing to drop by The Cave!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

"All the Noise, Noise, Noise, NOISE!!"

Yes, sad to say, but I tend to get a little Grinchy this time of year. Mostly it's due to the drudgery of Christmas shopping. It's not that I don't want to buy gifts for family and friends, mind you, it's just that I end up having a tough time trying to find stuff that I think they will like. In fact, it always seems that I see all sorts of books, CD's and DVD's that I'D like instead! So it does feel like I'm trekking through many a store over and over before I settle on the right gifts to buy for others.

But my main complaint about Christmas shopping is making my way through the overcrowded malls and having my ears assaulted by all of the crappy contemporary Christmas songs! I'm afraid that my tastes in music have always been a lot closer to my parents' generation than that of my own, and in fact as a teen I always preferred the records my Dad played around the house far more than what my peers were listening to at the time. As such, I never did develop a taste for the rock music of the day, although a lot of the pop/rock on the radio back then certainly was a lot more tuneful than what's on nowadays. Which brings me to my complaint.

Why do all of the untalented, similar sounding, young pop/rockers of today feel that they need to release their crap versions of Christmas songs? They all seem to sound the same, as their trilling crap voices meander around the notes without ever really hitting their target, adding in a lot of inane "Yeaaahhh"s to fill in any pauses between the lyrics. And then there are the mindless rappers who have cut melody out of the equation altogether, trying to force in ten times as many words (most of them unintelligible) than the original composers had written in the first place. And all of this tuneless, appalling crap is being blasted at high volume out of every clothing and electronics store that I am forced to pass by.

Now to be fair, there are a few stores and restaurants where I can hear old chestnuts from glorious Christmases past sung by the likes of Bing, Frank, Dino, Sammy, Ella, Peggy, and Nat, but even then there still seems to be a few contemporary crap songs thrown into the mix just to rankle my nerves. Incidentally, why is it only at Christmas that the great singers of the past are allowed to be heard in public at all before being placed in the box of mothballs again for another year? If one didn't know better, one might assume that Bing Crosby had recorded "White Christmas" and nothing else during his entire career!

So there you have it - the reasons for my annual Grinchy demeanor. Please let it be Sinatra singing as I sit down to a plate of roast beast...(sigh)

And speaking of Frank and Dino, here's some fun Christmas music by the all time kings of cool - a surefire remedy for curing Grinchiness:

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Happy Birthday Leonard!

Here's a salute to my favourite film reviewer and historian, Leonard Maltin. I was lucky enough to meet Leonard way back in 1982 when he was one of the attendees at The Ottawa International Animation Festival. He'd only recently started appearing on the newly created "Entertainment Tonight" (which was so much better in those days), so not many people were as familiar with him as they are today. However, I knew of Leonard Maltin primarily as a noted authority on animated films, through his two books, "The Disney Films" and "Of Mice and Magic". Anyway, I wasn't going to be shy about saying hi, so I went up and started chatting with him. He was such an affable fellow that, since he was going to be around the festival all week, I took the opportunity to do a caricature of him and presented it to him a few days later. He seemed quite genuinely delighted with it and was happy to sign my copies of his two books in return. He also extended an invitation to come visit him if I ever found myself in NYC, which I ended up taking him up on about a year later.

At that time, Leonard and his wife Alice were still living in Manhattan, even though Leonard was having to fly to LA for all of his Entertainment Tonight film reviews. Some time later they would relocate to LA in order to make that task more practical. When I saw him in New York he was in the middle of obtaining a second apartment in his building to set up as an office, as his film and cartoon collection had gotten too big for the one apartment they lived in. He and Alice were very gracious to me and Leonard took great delight in showing me his extensive collection of cartoon memorabilia. After an enjoyable visit, they strolled with me back to where I needed to catch a bus back to my hotel.

What I love best about Leonard is his obvious enthusiasm for movies and, even when he does offer up some criticism he is never mean spirited with it, always balancing out the bad with some good. Back when he wrote "The Disney Films" in 1973, it was long before it was fashionable to write about Disney and there were very few textbooks available on the subject. I think that the only two books on Disney I personally had at that time were his and "The Art of Walt Disney" by Christopher Finch. I found myself referring to his book often, as those were still the years of "The Wonderful World of Disney" on Sunday night TV, and I would read up on any of the live action Disney films that were about to show up on there for extra background on their production. What I didn't know at the time was that Leonard would have been only a young fellow of 23 when that incredible reference book was published!

In recent years, longtime Disney fans have Leonard Maltin to thank for his efforts in launching the "Walt Disney Treasures" series of boxed DVD sets devoted to vintage Disney animation, early television productions and Walt Disney, the man himself. Leonard also hosts these DVDs, providing a lot of historical background and supplemental interviews with legendary artists and performers. I have pretty much all of these sets, and find myself returning to them often to indulge in the warm nostalgia of that wonderful era of real entertainment.

Leonard currently has a website called "Leonard Maltin's Movie Crazy" as well as a quarterly publication that showcases vintage films of the early days of Hollywood, his real passion. And since Leonard has been such a loyal friend to animation and Disney over his many years as a film historian, I thought I'd give this new caricature of him an appropriate Disney cartoon-style, sunburst backdrop. By the way, I see from my list of celebrity birthdays that Leonard shares his birthday with Steven Spielberg, which I'm certain makes him happy. But he also shares his birthday with screen legend, Betty Grable, and I'll wager that makes him even happier! Happy Birthday Leonard!

Monday, December 15, 2008

"Walt's People" Volume 7

Here's a shameless plug for a book series I've been connected with since the beginning, having illustrated all of the covers with my Disney caricatures. Didier Ghez, who runs the very informative blog, Disney History, now has the latest volume of "Walt's People" available for purchase. With Christmas coming up fast, you folks may want to buy a whole bunch of these wonderful compilations of historical Disney interviews for the Disney enthusiast in your family. Head on over to Amazon to purchase as many as you can possibly afford!!

Below are the caricatures that adorn the cover of Walt's People Volume 7: Clarence "Ducky" Nash, the voice of Donald Duck; X. Atencio, the Imagineer; and Jim Macdonald, the head of the Sound Effects dept.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Hitchcock's "Vertigo"

This month on the National Caricaturist Network forums, the subject for the drawing contest is "Hitchcock Films", as decided upon by last month's "B.B. King" contest winner, Vin Altamore. I was overjoyed at this choice of subject, as it gives a lot of scope as to whom we may draw based on whatever Hitchcock film we choose to portray. I really love the films of Alfred Hitchcock, and I had several favourites to choose between, including two starring Cary Grant: "North by Northwest" and "To Catch a Thief". However, my all time favourite is 1958's "Vertigo", starring Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak and, believe it or not, I'd never really drawn a finished caricature of Jimmy Stewart before, though I recall having done some rough sketches of him many years ago. I had, however, drawn a caricature of the alluring Kim Novak from the other film in which they had co-starred together, "Bell, Book and Candle", which you may view here.

There were actually a lot of creative decisions that went into preparing this image, long before the drawing was finalized. In watching the film again, I wanted to pick out one scene that would seem iconic, and the pivotal scene at the old California mission was just perfect in summing up the movie for me, more so than anything in San Francisco itself, where the bulk of the movie takes place. As you can see by the rough thumbnail sketch pictured at left, I wanted to combine several shots from that scene into one single image that would tell more of what was going on, so in addition to the desperate embrace that Jimmy Stewart has on Kim Novak, I wanted her eyes to be focused on the top of the foreboding bell tower. So I included a forced, 3-point perspective shot (not entirely successful) of the mission to create the suspense, and took it further by using the spinning vortex from the Saul Bass title animation as the backdrop, with the bell itself focused in the centre. Lastly, I had struggled with getting Kim Novak's caricature in this 3/4 view, as I wanted to show her hair at the back in the "Carlotta" bun, indicative of the subplot of her believing she's possessed by the spirit of the mad Spanish woman, Carlotta.

Though I've certainly seen "Vertigo" a number of times, it's amazing how it can continue to engage me with repeated viewings. When you see the film for the first time, there is the shock of the mystery being revealed in the last act, which of course you can never relive a second time. However, even when you know what is going on, it's such a pleasure to watch the characters' faces, as you are aware of what they know and what they don't know at any given time. While Jimmy Stewart was wonderful in anything he did, this may be Kim Novak's finest hour, as she was not always given such great roles to work with in her somewhat spotty career. (I personally liked her a lot co-starring with Frank Sinatra in "Pal Joey", but the critics were not as impressed, I'm afraid.)

I'm including here the trailer for "Vertigo", which will hopefully give the uninitiated a compelling reason to seek this film out. Bernard Herrmann's memorable and haunting score, which plays over this trailer, is just one of many reasons to see it. Also, in the second YouTube clip, some very clever fan of the film has taken it upon himself to revisit all of the major locations in San Francisco where "Vertigo" was filmed, as well as faithfully recreating some atmospheric shots like the pan across the inside of the arched doorways of the old California mission. One interesting note of trivia is that the infamous bell tower had actually been created for "Vertigo" as a matte painting, as the mission's own bell tower had burned down many years prior. That's why you're not going to see any such bell tower in the scenes shot by this film fan. I really encourage all of my readers to watch "Vertigo" if they've never seen it before, as it really is one of Hitchcock's finest works.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Some Important Thoughts on the Economy

I read this article today in my morning Globe and Mail, and am posting it here because it makes a lot of sense. As everybody knows, we have headed into unsettling economic times. And while the prudent thing would seem to be to save one's money, when this trend runs rampant it collectively does a lot of harm to society as a whole. I've always felt that the economy is no different from the human body's own circulation system. Money is like the lifeblood of society: so long as it keeps circulating, everybody prospers. But when it stops circulating, the economy dies a gradual death, with one sector affecting other sectors with a ripple effect. If, on the other hand, everybody spends their money at a normal pace, the money you put into somebody else's pocket for his goods or services will find its way back to you in exchange for your own. That may be an overly simplistic analysis on my part as a layman and not an economist, but I honestly agree with the author of this article in that we must try not to panic, as keeping our money out of circulation will only hurt us all the more. I've put the compelling analogy that the author makes into bold type:

Deflation's big game
When the economy spirals downward, it feeds on itself. But if we set our sights on the right prize, we can work together to prevent things from getting even worse

From Monday's Globe and Mail
November 24, 2008 at 3:16 AM EST
Deflation. It's the economists' dread word, and in the past week it has leapt from a dusty back corner of their lexicon to the front pages of our newspapers.

Deflation refers to a sustained drop in prices caused by falling economic demand - a situation where unemployment of both people and capital soars and where the standard monetary tools that policy-makers use in response, such as interest rate cuts, stop working.

In the worst case, deflation becomes its own cause. People become afraid their incomes might fall in the future. Or they see their savings being ravaged by the stock market collapse. So they stop spending and instead hoard their money. As demand for goods and services drops, companies' profits plummet, leading to layoffs, reduced working hours, and yet more declines in stock prices. The fear of lost income becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and people cut their spending further. Once the downward spiral starts, it's maddeningly hard to stop. People expect prices will keep falling, so they decide to put off their spending, because they think things will be cheaper in the future.

The world economy appears to be on the cusp of this kind of vicious cycle. It has entered a synchronized downturn, with economic demand falling fast in every region. Most policy-makers and commentators understand that deflationary cycles are self-reinforcing. But few grasp another key characteristic: Deflationary cycles are, at their core, what social scientists call a collective action problem. And this characteristic has important implications for how we should respond.

The logic of this particular collective action problem plays itself out in our everyday lives. Recently my wife, Sarah, and I were at our kitchen table discussing whether we should renovate our family room this coming spring. Perhaps we should hold off until the economic storm clouds clear, we thought. But then we talked about how such decisions to be prudent, when added up across millions of households and companies, are the main reason why the economic crisis is getting worse so quickly. Yet we also recognized that our family - by itself - can't rescue the economy.

Our conversation cut to the core of the paradox. When everyone else is pulling back, individual families and companies must protect their own interests too. But in this economic crisis, behaviour that's rational for a single family or company is, when everyone behaves the same way, collectively irrational.

Collective action problems come in many forms, and social scientists have developed a whole subfield of research - "game theory" - to try to understand them better. The particular collective action problem we face right now is called a "stag hunt," after a dilemma described by the 18th-century Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Rousseau wrote about a hypothetical situation in which two hunters must co-operate to kill a deer. If a rabbit hops by one of the hunters, he would probably pursue the rabbit "without scruple," said Rousseau. Although the rabbit makes a less satisfying meal, at least it's a guaranteed meal. On the other hand, the deer isn't a guaranteed meal, because neither hunter can be absolutely sure that he can trust the other to help kill it. In the end, though, when one hunter chases a rabbit, collectively both hunters are worse off: While one gets the rabbit, both lose any prospect of getting a deer.

For families and companies in this economic crisis, the choice isn't between a deer and a rabbit, of course, but between spending and saving.

Because we can't trust other people to spend, we do the economic version of chasing the rabbit - we keep our money in our pockets. But this individually cautious behaviour worsens the collective economic crisis, and as the crisis gets worse, we're even more afraid and even less willing to trust others to spend. The main reason deflationary cycles are so diabolically hard for policy-makers to stop is that governments can't force people to trust each other. Instead, all they can do is inject spending directly into the economy, through increased unemployment benefits (because the jobless spend almost all the money they get) and infrastructure investment, and hope that by putting a floor under economic demand, people and companies will eventually become less fearful and start to spend again.

Governments need to move fast, because this crisis, which has taken several forms already, is about to change form again. In the past few months, we've moved from a seizing up of credit markets to the collapse of economic demand in the mainstream economy. Soon we could see a string of sovereign defaults of poor and emerging economies that can't meet their debt obligations.

Even worse, hundreds of millions of previously poor people from Hungary and Turkey to India and China - recent arrivals in the global middle class who've benefited from an economic boom fuelled by endless quantities of cheap credit - are about to see their standard of living fall of a cliff. Around the world, Western-style capitalism will be discredited, as it's perceived to have wiped out people's jobs and life savings.

Our global financial crisis could then morph into a global political crisis, as extremists of all stripes - neo-Nazis in Eastern Europe, hyper-nationalists in China, and Hindu fundamentalists in India - accumulate popular support and power.

Thomas Homer-Dixon holds the CIGI Chair of Global Systems at the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Hills Are Alive With The Sound of Janna!

Back in July I had posted about the outcome of "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?", the CBC TV talent search to cast the role of Maria in the new Andrew Lloyd Webber/David Mirvish production of "The Sound of Music" which has just recently debuted on the Toronto stage. Though the role was officially won by Elicia MacKenzie, the judges were also so impressed with first runner up, Janna Polzin, that a couple weeks later they asked her to be both Elicia's understudy as well as perform as the alternate Maria for the Saturday matinee and Wednesday evening shows. The show opened in October and has met with wide acclaim both from the theatre critics and audiences.

I went to see today's matinee performance starring Janna, and was able to meet with her for a few minutes after the show to present her with this framed print of the caricature I had illustrated of her at the conclusion of the TV series. I'm happy to report that Woodstock Ontario's Janna Polzin is a lovely and gracious young lady in addition to being a phenomenal singer and actress. Janna is a recent graduate of the Musical Theatre program at Sheridan College, where I currently teach in the Animation program. I had actually seen her in Sheridan's production of "The Music Man" three years ago, though her role was only a non-singing bit part that I admittedly cannot recall. I suspect that we also likely passed each other many times in the hallways of Sheridan without my knowing it! Anyway, I certainly know Janna now, and I predict that her success in "The Sound of Music" is going to lead to many more roles in a long and happy career.

By the way, the show itself really is magnificent, with strong performances from all of the leads and a bunch of cute kids as the von Trapp children. The sets are quite inventive, especially the opening number where Maria is first seen lying down in her hilltop alpine meadow gazing up into the sky, where we in the audience see her as if from a bird's eye view above. Then the hilltop slowly angles back into a flat plane, allowing our Maria to stand up and do her famous Julie Andrews twirl as she sings the title song. Janna's voice is clear and pure, with a sweet soprano able to hit all of those high notes perfectly. Broadway's Burke Moses plays Captain von Trapp with a strong voice, and I must say he reminded me a lot of the young Orson Welles, both in vocal quality and appearance! Stratford veteran, Keith Dinicol provides some excellent comic relief as Music impresario, Max Detweiler.

As the production has recently been given an extension through March, I'm very tempted to try and catch another performance to see Elica MacKenzie as Maria. She was also so outstanding during the TV competition and richly deserved winning the role. I suspect she brings her own distinct qualities to Maria, with her bubbly and excitable personality. Incidentally, I'm happy to report that, in sharing the role, these two young ladies (elegantly pictured together here in their evening gowns!) have become very close friends and are very supportive of each other. They're both just so thrilled to have this great opportunity to show Toronto audiences their immense talents and I believe theatre goers will enjoy them both very much in the many months to come. Here's where to go if you're interested in getting tickets to this fine production.

And now, for your added enjoyment, here's one of Janna's performances from "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?", where she sings Andrew Lloyd Webber's hit song from "Evita":

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Happy Birthday Meg!

Yes, today is Meg Ryan's birthday. I've been a big fan of cute little Meg ever since seeing her in "When Harry Met Sally" way back in 1989. That's still my favourite of her films, though I also liked her in "Sleepless in Seattle" and "French Kiss". Lately, Meg has certainly been trying to take on some different types of roles, but I must admit that I prefer her in the light romantic comedies that she's best known for. (Except for "I.Q.", which was a bit of a clunker!)

Anyway, I thought I should celebrate Meg Ryan today by also posting a couple caricatures I've done over the years, including the one below that was featured on my Christmas card way back in 1999. Alas, the Christmas stockings remained unfilled...(sigh)

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Bits and Pieces...

These are just a couple of recent pics I sketched in pencil, then scanned and coloured up in Photoshop. Both of these young ladies are subjects to be drawn on the National Caricaturist Network forums. I'm not much of a digital painter, I'm afraid, but I do like to add some quick colour to my drawings with the Photoshop program. I was also trying out one of the texture brushes on the backgrounds of these two caricatures. As I am also currently teaching about diversity in face and body design for animated characters, I offer up these sketches as two examples of attractive young women with extremely different features. There is such a wealth of variety to be found when you study what real people actually look like, so there is really no excuse for sticking to the same time-worn template whenever you are trying to come up with a new character design. By taking an honest look at people, you may then observe and analyze the differences in head/face shapes, as well as the relative placement, size and shape of all the individual features.

Something else I wanted to make note of at this time is something that John Kricfalusi had posted recently on his blog, "All Kinds of Stuff". He has written about the cartooning tips in the Famous Artists Cartoon Course which, though it dates back to the 50s, is still as relevant today insofar as showing practical drawing principles. I would particularly like to direct my Sheridan Animation students to these notes, as some of them relate very closely to many of the things I have been specifically talking about in my Character Design course in recent weeks. Here is the direct link to the original source of these pages.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

President Barack Obama

...And the dawn of a brand new day in America.

I know that all of my fellow Canadians who have supported Obama (and we are legion!) will now join me in wishing the American people well and expressing our immense gratitude to all of you who have shown the courage and good judgment in electing this man as the next President of the United States of America. Bravo!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Have a Happy Hallowe'en!

I thought that Hallowe'en should be properly acknowledged here in The Cartoon Cave with an appropriate caricature. Nothing too scary of course - just slightly sinister mixed in with a healthy dose of sex appeal in the shapely, sassy form of Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. I must admit, Elvira was harder to draw than I thought she'd be. My first sketch showed her face in a direct front view but, after taking a fresh look at it, I wasn't so sure I'd caught her. So I tried a three quarter view to better show off her facial features and inked that up instead. I hope this one is better!

I quite admire Elvira's alter-ego, Cassandra Peterson. She's a smart, attractive and funny lady who has created a very successful franchise out of her Elvira persona. Here is an interview with Cassandra where she explains the origin of her creation:

And here's an Elvira blooper reel that's pretty cute:

I hope you all have a safe and happy Hallowe'en!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

"The Chestnut Tree"

I just happened upon this film yesterday when I saw it posted on the blog of Alan Cook, a talented recent Sheridan Animation grad and a former student of mine. I've watched this short animated film over again several times now and must say that I just love it. It was created by a young animator from Korea named Hyun-min Lee, who has been accepted into the internship program at Disney and has apparently been working with master animator, Eric Goldberg. An interview with Hyun-min may be found here.

The film is a celebration of childhood imagination and the loving mother who encouraged that imagination to flourish. Now, some of you may be wondering why I am responding so enthusiastically to this film, when I recently gave quite a critical drubbing to "Adventure Time", which also centers around childhood imagination. Especially since the characters in "The Chestnut Tree" are also quite simplistic in design, with minimal facial features and a comparable amount of what we refer to as "pencil mileage" as that found in the designs of "Adventure Time". But that is really where the similarity ends, and for me the success is in the execution of the visuals and resulting animation in this charming film.

Though undeniably minimalist designs, the young girl and her mother are drawn with fully dimensional, simple forms and they are handled with fluidity and graceful movement in their animation. Unlike the awkward character animation and layouts I perceive to be at work in "Adventure Time", the skill of Hyun-min's animation is able to lead the viewer's eye pleasingly and playfully through each scene. Though the facial features are so simple in design, they register clear emotions that the viewer easily can respond to. Admittedly, as one who teaches Character Design, I myself prefer to see characters that have more specific features that can indicate more of their personality type, but when minimalist design is handled well at the animation stage, that's where the personality and emotional content can be put across through clarity of body language, expressions and timing of the motion. (I can also appreciate "Pocoyo" for that reason, by the way.) Still, I do expect to see more distinctness in the designs from my Sheridan students just to stretch their ability to depict personality through visual design alone, as they can all well attest to at this point! :)

I hope that Hyun-min Lee is successful in her goal to become a full-time animator at Disney and I look forward to great things from this young lady in the future!

Monday, October 27, 2008

B.B. King

A couple months ago I posted my caricature of Elton John that I drew as my entry for the August contest run by the National Caricaturist Network (NCN). Though there is a token prize offered to the winner, I think that should be just considered a bonus, as the real satisfaction is gained from taking on the challenge of drawing whomever is the subject for that month. For October, member Dave "Rock" Cowles came up with a rather intriguing subject dear to his heart: Legendary blues guitarist, B.B. King. I guess what I like best about this monthly contest is that it challenges me to draw somebody who I might not even think about caricaturing, as I usually gravitate towards either my personal favourite celebrities or somebody currently in the news.

Anyway, I quite enjoyed drawing B.B. King this month, though I must admit it was tough to work from what reference I could find. As I've mentioned often, I prefer to work from video as opposed to still photos. This was particularly important to me this time, as Mr. King is quite notable for his very extreme expressions as he plays. He has a rather endearingly comical face that is continually scrunched up and stretched out in his intense concentration, which makes for rich subject matter to capture in a caricature. Most of the still photos I found through a Google search really didn't help much in that regard, although I found them useful for some small details in the latter stage of my drawing, especially in approximating his guitar. Since I didn't have any video reference in my VHS or DVD collection, I ended up doing all of my rough sketching from viewing YouTube videos, as small in dimension and low res as they tend to be. Just for interest's sake, I'm including my pencil rough here along with the finished inked artwork.

Also, I think B.B. King must be seen in action to be fully appreciated, so here is a YouTube clip that I referred to, though not the one primarily used to achieve this caricature, which unfortunately cannot be embedded:

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Well, We Lost!

Yeah, tonight was federal election night here in Canada, and my guy lost! Though it looked pretty likely that Stéphane Dion and the Liberal Party were not going to reign victorious, there was still some slight hope over the last couple weeks that they might pull ahead just enough to squeeze by Stephen Harper and the Conservatives. Alas, it was not to be, but I'm not particularly perturbed about the outcome. You see, I am that rarity of voters: the guy that refuses to see any of the Canadian party leaders as villains. Though they may have different ideas on what's best for Canada, I'm convinced that they all come to the job of public service with good intentions. Though I'm not keen on some of Harper's policies (especially his seemingly low regard for the arts), I can't say I'm displeased with how he's handled himself in office the last two years. In fact, I think he's a very bright, articulate man who makes Canada look pretty good on the world stage. And with a second minority government, he will not be able to do anything too radical now that he's been re-elected.

And even though Stéphane Dion was not elected, my vote was not wasted, as my local Liberal candidate, Bonnie Crombie won this riding. Life will go on just fine here in Canada. My congrats to Mr. Harper on his re-election.

PS: I'm still wondering if the main reason I voted for Stéphane is because he sort of looks like me. Maybe I've just taken so-called "Identity Politics" to the next level!

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Working Out The Likeness

A comment by Denise Letter on my previous post:
"Hello Peter, good drawings! Could you put some of the photos of these people up to compare and learn?"

A very good idea, Denise! First of all though, I must give the following disclaimer:

The fact is, working from still photos is not my preferred method for drawing caricatures. When I draw caricatures of celebrities I never use photos if I can avoid it, as I much prefer to sketch them from watching video. By seeing my subject in motion, I find that I get a better feel for their simple visual design without getting bogged down with extraneous details. Also, I am equally as interested in capturing their distinctive personality in addition to their physical likeness and this too is more easily achieved by seeing my subject in action. For me, video is my favourite medium to work from, even better than real life, as it is totally controllable in my ability to play over or pause on a single frame for studying something in depth. When I work from still photos, I must admit I can't guarantee a great likeness of the subject, as the best I can hope for is that the interpretation results in something fairly close to the reference photos provided. So, having said that, I now present for you the way I work when limited to still photo reference alone.

When I sketch my fellow NCN members, the resulting caricature is very much dependent on what sort of photo reference that member has provided. To be perfectly blunt, there are some members who I am unlikely to even attempt to draw because they have only posted a single photo to work from. I never draw from a single image, as it too limiting in its visual information. So the members I like to draw are the ones who have provided a variety of pics, showing different angles and some variation in natural expression. (I say "natural" because I don't like made up funny expressions, like tongues poking out, crossed eyes, etc.)

My first step is to download as many of the pics as I think may be helpful to draw from by placing them in a file folder. At this point I then open them all up on my computer desktop and just look at them for awhile, glancing from one pose to another in order to try and see the underlying "design" of the face. So now I'll use these three examples to attempt to explain my thought process in working out the caricatured likeness.

This "Wolverine" lookalike is Adam Pate. As I study the selection of photos Adam has provided, I first try to see the overall shape of his head and face. Adam has a very wide, blocky jaw structure and a sturdy neck. His head shape seems to taper in narrower at the top. I keep everything loose at this stage of my drawing, as I may need to go back and fine tune things as my drawing progresses. Next it's onto the facial features themselves.

The facial features should be analyzed in three different ways: 1) Their relative spacing and placement on the facial plane, 2) their relative size to each other, and 3) their distinctive shape.

My visual impression of Adam's face is that his features are close set along the vertical centre line of his face with plenty of open space for the wide jaw and chin. Size-wise, he seems to have a large nose, small eyes and narrow mouth in its relaxed state. When I study the shapes, his eyes are slanted up and narrow with small light coloured irises. His nose flares out at the bottom with prominent nostrils. The mouth is always the most flexible feature, so I based its shape specifically on his expression in the 4th photo. I like the way his eyebrows arch upward in some expressions, so I portrayed them that way. In fact, Adam's face is very much based on a series of angular, alternating 'V' shapes. Sometimes I like to mentally compare a subject's face to a famous celebrity I've drawn before, and in Adam's case I thought there were some similarities to Kevin Kline and also, strangely enough, the young Peter Ustinov!

My next subject is Ken Coogan, or "Coogy" as he goes by professionally. Coogy's got a long narrow head shape that is swept back in a convex facial plane as can be clearly determined from the profile in the 5th photo. Because of this, my impression is that his features are stretched along this vertical space with a small chin that is close set to a long thin neck. His longish nose keeps the eyes and mouth separated some distance from each other. His eyes are squinty and heavy-lidded when he smiles and he has prominent lips. The shapes of his eyes and mouth are based on more curving 'U' shapes that head in opposite directions from each other. There is a droopiness to his features. Again, like in Adam's face, I chose to portray Coogy's raised eyebrows that I see in some of his expressions. As I drew Coogy, I couldn't help but think that he has similar features to that of comedian Garry Shandling.

Finally we come to Angie Jordan. Some aspiring caricaturists are somewhat unsure of how to approach drawing the face of an attractive woman, yet one should not shy away from the challenge. Overall, Angie strikes me as having a very angular head and features, which are in great contrast to the softer, curvier features that are seen on Alison Gelbman at the top right corner of my previous montage. In determining Angie's head shape, I am more inclined to draw her in a 3/4 view so that I can play up her high cheekbones and angular jutting chin. Her nose also juts out from the facial plane, so I see the overall design of her face as being made up of "arrows" thrusting forward and slightly downward at a 45 degree angle, with bridge of nose, mouth and jawline all parallel to each other. I like the expressiveness of her eyes in the 3rd photo, so I play up that wide-eyed look, giving her a lot of white space around her irises. Her mouth stretches wide back to her cheeks when she smiles, with all of her flesh taut to the bone. With females, it's also fun to study how the hairstyle works with the design and framing of the face. Angie's hair is long and straight with an interesting tuft in front that hangs down towards her eyes.

Again, I must confess that I have no idea how much these caricatures may or may not capture the subjects, as I have never met my NCN colleagues in person to have formed a visual impression of them. If I had good video reference of these folks to sketch from, I would likely end up with somewhat different results. By the way, my Sheridan students will recall that I distinctly have instructed them to draw people for their sketchbook assignment either from life or from video, and NOT from still photos. Until you have experienced drawing people in a caricatured fashion from life, you will not be able to draw them from still photos with the necessary skill set required to make informed artistic choices. Believe me, even I feel hindered when drawing from photos and would far rather draw my NCN friends from real life in order to get a more accurate feel for what they're all about.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Variety Is The Key!

Back in the spring, I decided to join the National Caricaturist Network (NCN) in order to meet some of my talented colleagues online and hopefully raise my own profile out there in cyberspace. It's certainly been a fun and rewarding experience, and I'm glad to be getting to know such a great bunch of artists through the member forums. (Unfortunately, you have to be a member to read them, otherwise I'd direct you all there. Sorry!)

Anyway, one of my favourite areas in the forums is "The Firing Squad", where members can post a selection of photos of themselves as fodder for the rest of us to sketch from. It's quite fascinating to see the myriad of variations that result, with each artist interpreting the subject in their own individual way. At this point I have sketched over 50 of my colleagues and posted them in the forum, as it's a lot of fun and keeps me in practice with what I love to do. Here is just a random sampling of some of my fellow NCNers - I'll post some more over the next little while.

Fact is, I really enjoy drawing what people really look like. By that I mean, not just drawing the same generic, cookie-cutter face and body design over and over again, but instead really observing the individual "design" of each person's face and then trying to exaggerate and simplify it into something appealing, while hopefully capturing the essence of their personality as well. I thought it might be a good time to post a montage of these faces on my blog, as I am currently going to be teaching my Sheridan animation students all about "Character Types". In other words, designing a character that somehow communicates to your audience what he or she is all about through the face and body type, essentially doing the same thing in cartoon that a casting director is concerned with when selecting the most appropriate actor to fill a role in a live-action film.

During this first semester at Sheridan, my students are also required to keep an ongoing sketchbook of drawings of actual people they see, but caricaturing the features and bodies as if they were studies for potential animated film characters. I am of the strong belief that by studying what individuals look like, this will hopefully result in them producing character designs that are richer in personality as well as more visually interesting in their variety of shapes and sizes. By posting my own caricatured drawings of these NCN members, I'm hoping this will give my students a clearer understanding of what I am looking for and why. In upcoming posts I will discuss more of the thought process that goes into doing these.

Monday, September 22, 2008

"A Romance in Graphite"

This past April at Sheridan College saw the screening of the 4th Year films from a very talented group of students who would shortly be graduating from the BAA Animation program. I'd had this bunch just two years prior in my 2nd Year Character Design class, and now that they've graduated and moved on into their careers, I don't mind saying that I'm going to miss seeing all those crazy rascals. One of these students was Melissa Maduro, who always had a great knack for drawing very appealing cartoon designs with a lot of personality, and I always enjoyed seeing her work when I was grading assignments. Even though the gal seemed to have a peculiar fascination with comedic zombies.

After the screening on Sheridan's annual Industry Day, I felt that Mel's film, "A Romance in Graphite" was among the better ones and it got a very good reception from the studio reps in attendance that day. It was also admittedly one of my favourite films for its simple, yet charming story told with humour and elegance. As it happens, "A Romance in Graphite" was one of the films in competition this past week at the Ottawa International Animation Festival in the category of Most Promising Student Film, with a scholarship from Teletoon as the prize. Actually, there were a number of other Sheridan grads in the running, including Vlad Kooperman for his incredible film, "C Block". Regardless of who has won the scholarship (and I haven't yet heard the results) I believe that Sheridan had some very worthy contenders.

Mel had recently posted her film on her own blog and, though I can't embed it here, I'm going to provide this direct link to "A Romance in Graphite" so you can all see how charming it is. So here's to Melissa Maduro - Talented filmmaker, funny cartoonist, and a friend to zombies...

Monday, September 8, 2008

Sir Elton

Every month on the National Caricaturist's Network forums they run a contest where a subject is chosen and everyone is invited to upload a caricature of that person. Though a prize is awarded to the winner, I think the real fun is just in the drawing and jumping into the fray. August's subject was Elton John. There were some really neat entries this time around and I decided to sketch Elton from a combo of his short interview on "The Lion King" DVD, plus from watching him in concert in various YouTube clips. As I've mentioned on here before, I always prefer to work from video footage as opposed to still photos, as I get a far better feel for the physical design and personality of my subject that way. Incidentally, when did Elton go from being that skinny balding kid he started out as, to the middle-aged pudgy with the wig?

As it happened, the winner of this month's contest!! Much thanks to the judges who liked what I came up with. Though I sketched from several sources to arrive at this finished colour caricature, the main reference I used was this duet Elton sings with gorgeous Shania Twain. Watching and listening to it many times over while I sketched actually gave me a new appreciation for Elton's "Something About The Way You Look Tonight". It really is a lovely song with a powerful melody. I can't claim to have been much of an Elton John fan through the many years he's been on the scene, but I find that his songs do hold up well, and they're probably much finer compositions than I'd previously given him credit for. My younger sister always liked him, but I'm still decidedly more a fan of Sinatra and his contemporaries than I am of anything my peers were into back in the 70's. I reckon I was just born old...

Friday, September 5, 2008

Look - It's Me!

Back in the spring I joined the National Caricaturist's Network, or NCN for short. Since becoming a member I have been able to meet many very talented caricaturists online from all over the world. In their discussion forums there is one area they call "The Firing Squad". It is there that members are encouraged to upload photos of themselves so that everybody else can draw them. I drew a bunch of the artists who already had pictures up, but then they told me I should really post some photos too so they could get back at me. So I took a bunch of digital photos of my funny looking mug and put them up for the rascals.

There were quite a few good caricatures that were drawn of me from various angles, but I thought I'd post my favourite one here on my blog, as it really has captured not only my physical likeness, but my personality as well. This art was done by a young fellow in the Netherlands, named Thijs Wessels. Here is his great caricature that definitely bears a close resemblance to the guy who stares back at me from my bathroom mirror each morning. I'm thinking I might cut out a print of it and wear it as a mask on Hallowe'en to scare the kiddies:

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Maher-velous Bill!

Since I was recently ranting about the inanities of political correctness, I think my caricature of this guy would seem to fit in with my feelings on this topic:

I did this sketch last Sunday night while watching a repeat of "Larry King - Live" that had run earlier in the week. I personally find Larry a little tiresome most of the time, but I'll always tune in if the always interesting Bill Maher is the guest, as it also seems to bring out the best in Larry too. I just love Bill's candid, blunt responses on every issue. Besides that, I think it's great that he doesn't toe any party line and, while mostly liberal, he will also occasionally stand up for conservative types when he's impressed with their integrity. He's a big fan of Republican hopeful, Ron Paul, for example. I think Bill Maher is one of the most refreshingly honest guys I've ever heard, and it's because he really doesn't give a damn what people think of him or his opinions.

I used to watch Bill Maher's "Politically Incorrect" show pretty much every night back when it was on, and just loved the way he could gather such diverse guests from various fields and different points on the political spectrum. Sometimes you'd get surprising results from throwing all these seemingly unrelated personalities together. I particularly recall Florence Henderson bonding with Marilyn Manson, no less! Oftentimes a little known starlet might show that she was just as politically astute as the most seasoned veteran politician. And Bill Maher kept the whole thing lively with his provocative questions putting his guests on the spot. Unfortunately, we don't get HBO here in Canada unless one has a satellite dish, so I haven't seen his current show, "Real Time". But from watching clips on YouTube, it looks like it's as good as his former show used to be, though a little more formal in presentation. Here's a clip from this week's "Larry King - Live", the same show that I drew this caricature from:

Monday, August 25, 2008

Gouache Meets Photoshop

In my previous post I showed some sample illustrations from a couple of Disney books that were painted completely in the traditional method of paint on illustration board. However, just so you don't get the idea that I am totally against using Photoshop, here are some samples that employ a hybrid method that I like to use.

This illustration is from a book published a few years ago by Random House, entitled "Beauties in Bloom", which featured two spring themed stories, one featuring "Snow White" and the other, "Cinderella". This was the first in a series of seasonal books put out as part of the "Disney Princesses" program. Though I'm admittedly not keen on the packaging of the characters under the "Disney Princesses" banner, I do enjoy illustrating the classic characters in original new tales, rather than just retelling the film stories.

After my final pencil layouts of the pages have been approved by Disney, I then separate the elements of characters and backgrounds. I transfer the background drawing onto a sheet of illustration board using graphite paper and a photocopy of my drawing that I can trace over with a sharp hard pencil. Once the background image is on the board, I start out painting in the large areas such as sky and grass using dilute washes of gouache on the surface which has already been pre-moistened with water brushed on evenly with a large flat brush. Once the larger expanses are in, I can start building up the details of bushes, trees, and surface texture on the ground.

In the case of "Snow White", since the film's backgrounds were rendered in watercolour, I am using the gouache more dilute in order to approximate the look of real transparent watercolour. It's a bit of a cheat, but then I'm pretty sure that even the Disney artists used some opaque gouache in areas that needed lighter highlights over dark areas. Frankly, I've never been good at handling real watercolour, so I prefer to use gouache because I'm more comfortable with it. Once all of the backgrounds have been painted, then comes the rather tedious task of scanning them into Photoshop, usually in two or three sections because of the limited area on the scanner plate. I then have to reassemble them into single Photoshop files, which is often tricky due to some areas having scanned a bit darker or lighter than others, and therefore needing some adjustment.

With the backgrounds out of the way, I can then get to the characters. Working from my clean pencil layouts, I place a sheet of matte finish mylar film on top of each one and, using a very fine #00 watercolour brush, carefully ink each set of characters as delicately as I can in order to approximate the way they used to hand ink the old animation cels using a crowquill pen and ink. When these are all completed, I then scan in each sheet of character art, again sometimes having to reassemble any large character groupings that were too big to scan in one piece. (Fortunately, that doesn't happen often.)

At this point, each page of character line art has to be converted into a transparent layer in Photoshop. This is so that I can then colour the characters by "painting" on a second transparent layer below, thus resulting in an image that really does approximate an animation cel with solid flat colours beneath the clean ink lines. What's nice about this method too, is that I can very easily go over separate areas on the line layer to change the colours of the line to something that relates better to the area of colour they contain. This is also the way they used to ink the cels in the early Disney feature films. Usually I keep this part pretty basic; just brown lines to surround warm colours and dark blue lines for blues and greens. I do a bit of tonal modeling on the areas of colour, but I keep that real basic too, otherwise the characters start looking too much like plastic.

Once both backgrounds and character layers are in the computer, it is then a very easy and fun process of assembling them together for the final picture files. The benefit of working this way as well, is that if either Disney or the publisher require any changes to be made, it is not much problem to slightly shift or adjust the size or colour value of a character, without having to worry about the background. Finally, the real benefit for me is just sending the client a couple of CDs containing all of the page setups, instead of sending a bulky stack of original illustration boards by Fedex, which can be quite costly, as well as nerve racking, hoping they arrive safely.

Because I really enjoy trying to match the background painting style of the original film, here are a couple more examples of my Disney book work which show some variety in approach:

This is a scene from "Happy new Year, Pooh!", that I did as one of a series of "Winnie-The-Pooh" books for Reader's Digest. It was a book of the month type of thing, where each title related to something in each month of the year. I did three books in the series. I quite like working with the Pooh characters, as well as doing the looser pen, ink and watercolour backgrounds that the film employed to adhere more to the original Shepard book illustrations. These backgrounds are more like coloured drawings than true paintings, and therefore are easier for me.

Still, that doesn't mean I shy away from more painterly approaches, as I had fun trying to mimic the style of background artist, Eyvind Earle, in "Sleeping Beauty". Eyvind would paint in large, opaque, flat areas of colour, then build up the surface detail in multiple layers with his gouache. My paintings are a lot more basic than his, though, as he would create incredible textures and ornate design work in his film backgrounds. In June of 2007, I got to see the exhibit of original Disney animation art that was on show in Montreal (having first debuted in Paris). It was a real pleasure to be able to get up so close to some original Eyvind Earle backgrounds and analyze his approach in the brush work and order in which he would paint all of the elements. His gnarled, old tree trunks were incredible to behold. My simplistic "forgeries" pale in comparison, I'm afraid, but it sure is fun trying to paint in his style!

Monday, August 18, 2008

In Praise of Real Paint!

Since I've been extolling the virtues of using real paint on illustration board, I thought this might be a good opportunity to show some samples of the art I've done for various Disney books over the years. These are all painted with gouache, an opaque form of watercolours.

As I've often mentioned in previous posts, "The Jungle Book" remains my alltime favourite of the Disney animated features. Therefore, it was a real treat to illustrate this book for Random House, which was just a simple retelling of the story targeted to beginning readers. It was one of a series of books under the umbrella title of "My First Disney Story". I drew and painted four of these books and did the pencilling for a fifth that was painted by another illustrator. I am quite comfortable using gouache, and endeavor to paint the backgrounds fairly close to what they look like in the original films.

Painting the characters in these illustrations is a bit tricky, and I always start by masking them out with frisket so as to keep the characters untouched as I paint the background behind them. That way, the characters are still just my pencil lines on clean white areas of board when I go to paint them in. As you can see, I keep the tonal rendering on the characters to a minimum, so they don't start looking all shiny like plastic. (I don't like the Disney video box art for that very reason.) I find that just a bit of dry brush shading on one side gives them the clean, crisp look that I prefer.

These samples from the "Bambi" book I illustrated for that same series unfortunately never saw the light of day. This particular book was sadly never published, as Random House execs were keeping a close watch on sales of the other books and weren't sure how well "Bambi" would do. Though I was still paid well for my work, it was a real disappointment not to see this one in print, as I had really enjoyed doing these paintings. In addition to these two titles, I also illustrated two others in the series on "The Lion King" and "Snow White", as well as having pencilled the illustrations for a "Dumbo" book.

This was at a time when Disney Consumer Products was still greenlighting lots of fun projects, utilizing characters from many of their classic films. Sadly, the mindset there is far different now, with book product limited pretty much to just the "Disney Princesses" franchise and "Winnie-the-Pooh". The only other films that still get some book tie-in seem to be the Pixar titles. Frankly, I miss the days when Disney was still celebrating their classics of the past, as these were the characters that I was happiest to work with. I wish that the folks at Consumer Products would realize just how big an audience still exists for those classic animated films. Additionally, it would be nice if Mickey and the gang would start to be used again properly, instead of relegated to just that preschool "Mickey's Clubhouse" with its unfortunate computer generated animation...

Sunday, August 17, 2008

That's a Good Question!

I was going to answer this question from the clever cartoonist known as Bitter Animator in the comments section where he asked it, but then I thought it might be lost there. I consider it a very fair question that deserves a proper (if longwinded) response:

"Mr.E, do you have to switch? I mean, it's not like you're not getting great results with your brush and ink. I guess it depends on working situations but, hey, if it ain't broke..."

Bitter - You know, it's funny you should ask that because I just had a similar conversation the other day with my buddy and fellow instructor, Johnny. I was telling him of my computer woes and frustration with accomplishing anything decent with Photoshop brushes, when he asked me the following: "Even if you were able to get satisfying results with the tools all operating to your liking, would you give up traditional media in favour of now working digitally?"

After thinking it over for a moment, I replied, "No, actually I wouldn't." Here are my reasons why not. First of all, even if I was able to create the "perfect brush", suitable for digital inking and painting, it would still require constantly resizing and tweaking the settings of opacity, flow, etc. As it is, I can so easily get the line I want through the simple adjusting of pressure and angle on my sable brush. Also, wielding a real brush on a real sheet of illustration board, I can swivel the board to any comfortable angle in order to more easily pull a nice controlled ink line. I can't do that with the Wacom tablet, and would therefore require an expensive Cintiq to have that ease of mobility. As it is right now, I feel very constrained using the stylus and tablet.

Also, the fact is I just love the intuitive feel of working with real media. There is something very satisfying about choosing the preferred surface on which to work, and feeling the tooth of that surface as I apply the brush with ink or paint. Likewise, there is the intuitive feel of knowing just how much to dilute the paint or not, depending on the desired effect, and then knowing instinctively just how much I can rework the paint on the board before it dries. Even aside from the tactile nature of real media, there is that appeal to the sense of smell, too. Fact is, I just love the smell of ink as I work. I've known that smell since starting to ink back when I was about 12 years old, and I'd miss it if I only inked digitally.

Finally, there's the very basic reason that, when creating art digitally, there will never be such a thing as an original piece of art. Anything tangible to hold in your hands or frame on the wall will always have to be a printout. Frankly I love to look at my original artwork, where I can study it and remember how I achieved a certain effect by observing and analyzing the brush work.

So why do I want to be able to learn how to ink and paint digitally? Perhaps somewhat as a matter of satisfying my artistic ego, knowing that I can keep pace with the computer age. Mostly, though, I think it's out of a fear that if I can't produce work digitally, that I become less marketable, as I'm finding that some clients now insist on having digital art. I once talked to an art rep who told me that he won't even look at anything inked traditionally anymore, as he wants everything in a vector line for reproduction at any size. So there I can't even win with Photoshop, as I'd need to learn that wretched Illustrator program with the insidious bezier curves/ pen tool.

Personally, I find the digital trend highly disturbing and would rather continue to coast along with my traditional skills honed over a lifetime of working this way. At most, I would rather utilize the computer only in a hybrid fashion, combining my hand inked drawings with the ease of adding flat areas of colour with Photoshop. A little bit of rendering is okay, though I prefer not to overdo the adding of shadows and highlights, lest the image start to look more like plastic than flesh and cloth. This image of the bear is pretty much the way I've used Photoshop in the past, and I will probably continue to use it simply as a colouring tool in most of my artwork, although I would still like to see what I could accomplish if I can ever get a handle on this digital painting stuff.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Political Correctness Gone Amuck!

I thought this article in today's Globe and Mail was really interesting, so I'm reprinting it here. As I've long held a reputation myself for being like that kid who knows a naked emperor when he sees one, I know firsthand what it's like to be roundly condemned for speaking truthful but unpopular views. I think Ms. Cohen is right on the money with her assessment of these times we live in:

From Monday's Globe and Mail
August 11, 2008 at 3:38 AM EDT
So, did you hear the one about the guy who pushed the envelope while thinking out of the box, and kept a whole lot of agenda items on his radar until he got rid of the low-lying fruit?

You did? Were we at the same meeting? Probably not. But you could have easily heard the same generic tunes at any number of meetings throughout the country. An actual, productive exchange of ideas in many business forums has been gradually usurped by a steady diet of mind-numbing jargon. Who among us has not been at a meeting where legions of employees around the table try to stifle their giggles as increasingly trite and outrageous gibberish reaches our ears and insults our brains. But is this just a work annoyance or does the use of jargon have any implications outside the workplace?

The trend away from honest conversation in the workplace has its roots in a more generalized climate of politically correct discourse. At first glance, it appears to be a relatively benign practice. However, this phenomenon should be viewed in the larger context of words and expressions being continually evaluated and re-evaluated for their potential to offend groups and individuals.

People are so terrified of potentially offending others that language becomes a mockery of itself. While we might joke that someone is follicularly challenged instead of "bald," or vertically challenged instead of "short," these types of expressions move us further away from the facts and into conversations and relationships that are based on a discourse reminiscent of walking on eggshells for fear of offending others. That is not to suggest that one must be honest to the point of being hurtful, but surely there is some need to develop a workplace and political discourse that is both respectful and truthful.

A culture of fear has permeated political conversation in Canada as well. Though freedom of expression is enshrined in Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms, on an individual level, one is increasingly aware that political or religious positions that deviate from the unofficially sanctioned politically correct party line makes for ideologically dangerous living.

How did this happen? Can the average Canadian take back freedom of expression without fear of career or social retribution and shunning? Is it possible to nurture a more genuine political and social discourse or will we be forever doomed to repeat regurgitated pleasantries and clichés and obfuscate facts in order not to offend?

In order to reclaim honest conversation, baby steps must be taken.

Truly enlightened employers, managers and employees alike can make efforts to move away from jargon and back to a lexicon of clarity. A general caveat is that by the time "street" slang is used by middle-aged parents ("gee son, that's phat"), much to the chagrin of their teenaged children, it's clearly no longer cool. Similarly, by the time business jargon moves from the web to the boardroom, you can be sure it's just as dead and useless.

In the broader scheme of things, individuals can encourage their elected officials to repeal Section 13.1 of the Canadian Human Rights Act, that labels it a "discriminatory practice" to communicate messages that are "likely to expose a person or persons to hatred or contempt." In real life this amounts to speech that is "likely" to offend someone at some point. We need to collectively buck up, stop whining and allow the appropriate bodies to intervene only when speech becomes a threat of physical violence or incitement (call the cops) or libellous (call your lawyer).

In the meantime, the next time someone tells you to get your ducks in a row, going forward, how to inform the discussion, or what struck them most about what-ever, take a deep breath, take a bold step forward and politely demand clarity. You could be pleasantly surprised at the result.

Laura Rosen Cohen is a Toronto-based writer

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Computer Problems

I've been going through computer hell recently. The 20" iMac that I'd had for only two years was having a power problem, causing it to shut itself down completely after I'd only put it into Sleep mode. It would be okay if I went to use it within a half hour or so of putting it to sleep, but an hour or more and it would shut down. I must have called Apple tech support at least a half dozen times, each time with someone walking me through some test to try and pinpoint the problem and hopefully resolve it. No luck, I'm afraid, so then it was time to take it in for service.

At the Apple Store they figured it was the power unit and replaced it, assuring me the next day that they had tested it out and it seemed fine. But once I'd hooked it back up at home, it started doing the same damn thing again. When I took it back and they reassessed it, they determined it had a faulty motherboard and would be very difficult or impossible to repair. As it was still covered by the warranty, they told me the only option they had was to give me a brand new computer. In fact, they'd already begun transferring my data over, assuming I'd be receptive to the offer.

Now getting a new iMac in exchange sounds great, right? I thought so too, until I got it hooked up and running at home. I noticed that the screen looked a little unusual, sort of more contrast in the desktop wallpaper image I had on there. Also, I noticed that text at the top of a webpage seemed bolder than it did when it scrolled toward the bottom of the screen. However, it was only when I opened up one of my art files to work on that I realized just how much of a problem there was. As I was working, I noticed that when I altered my head position up or down by only a couple inches, that the tonal value of the image would vary lighter to darker. Standing up and looking down at the screen from a sharp angle made the display image appear washed out, whereas looking up from below made everything very dark, in fact causing almost a negative effect at the extreme angle with black areas turning light against midtones. Very strange indeed!

I thought a search on Google might provide some insight into the problem. Boy, did it ever! I soon discovered that Mac fans were in an uproar about what apparently were inferior quality displays that had been outfitted on all of the latest 20" models. In fact, a class action lawsuit has been launched against Apple for making claims on their website that would seem to differ from what the reality is with these new models. Anyway, I took back the computer the next day and complained that, had I known the screen was vastly inferior to what I'd given up, I would never have agreed to the exchange in the first place. To be fair, the Apple employees were quite understanding and accommodating, and the manager agreed to upgrade me to the 24" model which still had the superior technology in the display. Yes, I did have to pay a little extra to upgrade, but the manager met me halfway, knocking off half the price difference. So, currently I have a 24" iMac that has a beautiful screen and everything seems to be operating as it should.

Knock wood...

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

"Maria" Problem Solved!

For the record, I have to state that I am not a fan of so-called "reality shows" on TV. I've especially avoided the various "American Idol" type talent shows, mostly because I can't abide contemporary pop music. However, a recent addition to the reality show genre did intrigue me enough to tune in earlier this summer. CBC started showing "How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?"- a talent search for the leading role in a big stage revival of "The Sound of Music" to be produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber, no less, here in Toronto. It's based on a previous talent search that successfully aired in Britain on the BBC some time ago.

Being a Baby Boomer myself, I grew up in the tail end of the Hollywood musical era, when film adaptations of hit stage shows were still big box office. So, yes, I saw "The Sound of Music" when it originally played in movie theatres back in 1965. I believe I saw it again in a rerelease a few years later, which is when I probably understood better what it was all about. Around that same time I also saw "My Fair Lady", which still ranks first on my list of favourite musicals. Anyway, I thought it might be fun to see what type of talent would be on display in this CBC search, so I tuned in from the first show. By the time they'd pared down a possible 20 to the 10 young ladies who would compete on the weekly show, I was hooked. It has been a real delight to see all these wonderful girls sing their hearts out each week, hoping to make it through to the following week.

Of course, that's also the problem with the series, for in order for one girl to win, nine must lose. And so it went that I'd enjoy the hour long Sunday night show, watching the ladies perform, and then cringe a bit at the end of the half hour Monday show, where two girls would have to do a sing-off based on the lowest number of votes cast, resulting in one being eliminated by the judges. There is something inherently cruel about the process, which is why I still don't much care for the whole reality show concept. Even though some of the girls may not have had the right stuff, I did not like to see any of them hurt, as they were all quite adorable.

I'll admit I had my favourite, but once they'd whittled it down to three final contenders by last week, I was convinced that any one of the three would have been ideal in the role. These three girls pictured above are the final contenders, Jayme Armstrong, Janna Polzin and Elicia MacKenzie.

So here I'll reveal Janna Polzin as my favourite choice for the role. I liked her right from the start, as there was a very professional air about her. Not only blessed with a beautiful singing voice, but Janna seemed to have an instinctive flair for the performance in delivering her song material through strong expressions and body language. I also found out along the way that Janna just happened to be a graduate of the Musical Theatre program at Sheridan College, at the same campus where I teach in Animation. In fact, in researching her, I realized I'd actually seen two productions at Sheridan that she'd appeared in, though she was only in the chorus so I couldn't recall her. I'm a big fan of Sheridan's program, and try to show my support by seeing the shows whenever I can. I know a couple of the girls who would have been Janna's classmates, and I'm also friends with Sarah Cornell, a grad from a few years ago who went on to star in the Toronto run of "The Producers", of which I wrote about in a previous post. Yeah, I'll admit I'm a sucker for pretty gals who can sing and dance - they're my feminine ideal!

Janna did in fact make it into the final round this weekend, and she'd been considered the front runner for awhile, I believe. But it was not to be, for last night the winner was announced and it was.....

....Elicia MacKenzie!

Fact is, though she may not have been my pick, I still think that Elicia richly deserves the role. She too has been blessed with a wonderful voice and seemed the most adaptable to whatever type of song they chose for her to sing. Whereas Janna seemed the more seasoned professional, Elicia is still that diamond in the rough, though I've no doubt she will rise to the challenge and be ready for the stage this fall. She is certainly a fresh faced, wide eyed beauty, and very much the image of the Cinderella who has well earned her "happily ever after". I think Elicia was more surprised than anyone when it was her name that was read from the envelope and her victorious performance at the show's finale of the title song from "The Sound of Music" was just magical. I wish Elicia much success and look forward to seeing her on stage as Maria!

Here are video clips of both Janna and Elicia, courtesy of YouTube: