Wednesday, January 30, 2008

"Ya' Ever Pick Your Feet in Poughkeepsie?"

I actually had sketched this out in pencil a couple months ago, but decided to ink it up and post it today in honour of Gene Hackman's birthday. Gene's 78 now - can you believe it? Looking at his filmography on IMDb, it seems he's slowed down a bit in the last few years but was still pretty active leading up to his great role in "The Royal Tenenbaums" in 2001. Many of you may think back with fondness to his fun, campy Lex Luthor in "Superman" back in 1978. I still think his greatest film, though, was "The French Connection" in 1971, which really put him on the map, as it really was one of the landmark films that ushered in the gritty style of moviemaking in the 70's along with such films as "The Godfather", "Serpico", "Taxi Driver" and Hackman's other masterpiece, "The Conversation", to name but a few.

Hackman plays Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle, an out of control narcotics cop, who on a hunch tails a suspected smalltime drug dealer who turns out to be mixed up with a major drug kingpin from France. Doyle and his partner, Buddy Russo, played by Roy Scheider, get deeply involved with what turns out to be more than they originally figured, culminating in that famous scene where Doyle appropriates some poor schmoe's car to chase down the kingpin's murderous accomplice who's on an elevated train. Whereas "Popeye" Doyle is a rather manic and tenacious cop, Roy Scheider as Russo is pretty calm and levelheaded, trying to keep his partner in check. Scheider would of course go onto greater fame himself in 1975 as the police chief of a small coastal town in "Jaws".

I really enjoyed doing this caricature of these two guys, not only because of my admiration for this film, but also for the visual contrast between Hackman and Scheider. Gene Hackman has a rather doughy quality to his features with all round bulbous forms and a horizontal thrust to his nose and chin, whereas Roy Scheider has a strong vertical design to a face that looks like it's chiseled out of rock with all those straight lines and blocky shapes. I'm always onto my Sheridan students to try to get greater contrast between their characters for more visual interest and appeal. Here's a good example of such characters from real life.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Jumping on the Chuck-Wagon

All right, since all the cool kids are posting about Chuck Jones, I'm feeling left out. So here's my take on Chuck's artistic ability and whether or not it waned in his later years. Cut to the chase - NO, of course he was not drawing at his best in his old age, but even his drawings for the limited-edition sericels that he was mass producing to satisfy the animation collectibles market that was springing up, were pretty damn good when taken on their own terms. I think ol' Chuck was no more guilty than other "Animation Legends" that were out making some easy dough in their golden years by exploiting their illustrious filmic past. Friz Freleng was doing it too, but if you take a look at the sericel images in these two runs, I think Chuck's drawings were far better than those of Friz. However, I don't believe that Friz in his prime was ever as notable for his draughtsmanship as he was for his directing skills, so I don't hold it against him.

To be sure, Chuck's drawings on the sericels and also the illustrations he did for his two memoirs, "Chuck Amuck" and "Chuck Reducks" were pretty off-model, as they say, when compared to any of the cartoons he directed back in his heyday at Warner Brothers. But when taken out of context, his drawings are still examples of damn fine cartooning nonetheless! I always suspected that when any of the oldtimers, once having long retired from their respective studios, were basking in the glow of the recognition and popularity that came their way later on, they basically didn't care how accurate their sketches were to the original character models. They were a bunch of old farts just enjoying all of the overdue attention they were now getting from their legions of fans and, free from the constraints of actual cartoon production, were allowing their own personal artistic styles to take over in the same manner as their handwritten signatures. If the characters weren't exactly on-model, so what? Being a beloved oldtimer in this industry buys you a lot of slack, in that, who is going to tell you that you no longer know how to draw the characters that you had a hand in originating? Guys like Ward Kimball and Bill Justice from Disney were taking the same liberties with their characters that Chuck took with Bugs and the gang, but any fan lucky enough to get a quick sketch from these delightful old codgers treated it like gold (as well they should), despite whatever inaccuracies to the design had taken hold with the passage of several decades of their being away from the animation desk.

For the record, by the way, Chuck Jones was also my favourite of the Warners cartoon makers. Even back when I was a young kid catching them on the old "Bugs Bunny / Roadrunner Hour" for the first time, I noted that the cartoons I liked best mostly seemed to be directed by some cat named "Charles M. Jones". They always seemed very sophisticated, though sometimes given to self-indulgence, in retrospect I suppose. It was years later before I delved into the history a bit and learned something about the various animation greats at both Warners and Disney. If memory serves me, I think one of the first times I actually saw Chuck Jones at length on TV was in an interview he gave on "The Dick Cavett Show" sometime back in the 1970's on PBS. I vividly recall what a fun interview it was and that Chuck did seem to come across as a guy who loved to hear himself speak. In fact, it seemed to me at the time that both he and Cavett were two of a kind, engaging in their know-it-all banter, with Chuck likely quoting Mark Twain and Cavett quoting back with Groucho Marx. But, as I am also often guilty of being a bit of an elitist blowhard, I felt a certain kinship with these guys!

In his post Warners animation career, Chuck was pretty hit and miss. I still consider his "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" to be the gold standard in animated TV specials, but his three adaptations of Kipling's stories from "the Jungle Book" later on were good, but not great. Sadly, his very odd version of "Carnival of the Animals" with Bugs and Daffy I consider to be pretty abysmal, which proves that even a once great director like Chuck was not infallible. And I don't think any of us are being disrespectful for pointing out such shortcomings either. Chuck Jones was only human, after all.

To see a retrospective of Chuck Jones art, running the gamut from "Classic Chuck" to "Make a Quick Buck Chuck", please take a look here on John K's site.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Suzanne Pleshette

Sadly, we lost Suzanne Pleshette yesterday, who died from complications following a battle with lung cancer. This follows the death only about a year ago of her husband, comedian Tom Poston, whom she'd married late in life, after both had been widowed by previous spouses. I ran this caricature once before in celebration of Bob Newhart's birthday, as "The Bob Newhart Show" remains one of my alltime favourite sitcoms. Now, hearing about Suzanne Pleshette's death at 70, I find it hard to believe that it's been over 30 years since that show was originally on the air.

For many of my generation, Suzanne Pleshette represented the type of woman we associate with entertainment of the 60's and 70's. She was attractive and sophisticated, and always a class act. In addition to the years she played Emily Hartley on "The Bob Newhart Show", I remember her as a familiar presence in some of the Disney films of my youth, including "Blackbeard's Ghost", "The Ugly Dachshund", and "The Shaggy D.A.", all of which teamed her up with Disney regular, Dean Jones, with whom she had a natural onscreen chemistry. She also costarred alongside one of my very favourite actors, James Garner, in "Support Your Local Gunfighter". With the advent of DVD, many of the TV shows I loved when I was young have been released in the last few years, enabling me to bask in the warm glow of nostalgia. Again, Suzanne Pleshette turns up in guest roles on some of these series. She played opposite Eddie Albert in a first season episode of "Columbo", and she was in the very first episode of "Wild Wild West", starting the trend that show would become famous for - having a different gorgeous woman in every show opposite Robert Conrad, much like the tradition of the Bond girls.

After hearing of Suzanne's passing yesterday, I watched an episode of "The Bob Newhart Show" in tribute to her. She and Bob were just so great together and I miss the classiness of that era of TV. Goodnight, sweet Suzanne...

(Please also see Jim Hill's site for another look back at Suzanne's career, with an emphasis on her films for Disney)

Sunday, January 20, 2008

BJ Crawford

Sorry I've been rather late in updating this blog, but I've been keeping rather busy with teaching and freelancing. I'll be posting up some new drawings later this week, but in the meantime I'd like you to take a look at the following clip of animation that I accidentally ran across while looking for something else on YouTube. It's by a fellow named BJ Crawford, whom I had the pleasure of teaching in his first year of animation at Sheridan College way back in 1997. (Actually, that was also my first year teaching there too!) I recall that BJ was one of the more natural cartoonists that year and that his Character Design assignments were always fun to look at. It was therefore a real treat to happen upon both this clip and his sample reel to see just what great stuff he's been doing in the 10 years since I last saw him. As I've often harped on about my dissatisfaction with most modern day animation being of the flat, Flash cutout variety, it is indeed refreshing to see a young guy doing some full character animation with personality in the movement:

And, though it's certainly made the rounds on many sites before this, I'll also add this bit of animation by the great James Baxter for more visual pleasure. This is a short cycled piece of a self-caricature that James did of himself dancing that shows the pure magic of the animated drawing at its finest. No fancy backgrounds, no digital paint job, just what appears to be nothing more than coloured pencils on sheets of animation paper. It is examples like these of both James Baxter and BJ Crawford that sum up what animation should be. I personally never tire of a hand-drawn cartoon character seemingly having that "Illusion of Life". Enjoy!

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Oscar Peterson

I was very sad to hear that jazz legend, Oscar Peterson passed away a week ago. Though I make no claims to be an authority on jazz, I would describe myself as a casual fan of the genre, as my taste for 50's/60's swing vocalists is certainly closely related. My preference in jazz has been for the lighter, melodic practitioners, and particularly those who cover the standards of The Great American Songbook. Certainly Oscar Peterson covered his share of the songs I love in his own inimitable style.

Born in Montreal, Oscar was certainly a source of pride to we Canadians for having become a jazz pianist of world renown. And unlike so many Canadian performers who move to the U.S. once they hit the big time, Oscar Peterson chose to remain in Canada, settling into a typical suburban neighbourhood here in Mississauga Ontario, the city where I also currently reside. In fact, it has been something of a thrill to know that the great man lived less than 10 miles away from my house. I remember looking him up in a celebrity address directory I bought awhile back and had always intended to drive over to his street in the hopes of getting a glimpse of him. Alas, I never did get around to it and, since Oscar had been in poor health and mostly confined to a wheelchair these last several years, I regret that I never went to try and meet him back when I might have had a chance to. I was happy to read in the articles since his death that he was very much an average guy who was quite social with his neighbours, ever a kind and modest man.

I recalled I had a videotaped concert from the early 90's on Oscar, so I played it recently in order to get this caricature of him. Though I had hoped to take it to finished ink and colour like most of what I've been posting, I actually kind of like the energy in this rough sketch, so I've decided to post it as is. Since jazz itself is often spontaneously played, I think it maybe makes sense to show this equally spontaneous rough drawing of Oscar. However, I do intend to finish it up in due time and may post up the finished piece later.

I've got a number of Oscar Peterson's albums on CD. My favourite is his "Canadiana Suite", which is all his own compositions. There's also a great team-up with him and vibraphonist, Lionel Hampton, on the Verve label that is quite wonderful. I really should try to get the album he did with Count Basie, whom I also really enjoy. Anyway, on a final note, here is a clip of the great Oscar Peterson that looks like it dates back about 10 years prior to the source of my caricature of him. For such a giant of a man, it is amazing to me just how nimble those fingers were - Enjoy!