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!