Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas!

Happy Holidays to all of my readers! I hope you have a great one! I had an excellent Christmas with my family, and got some pretty nice (and nerdy gifts) including: a hand stitched Totoro doll from my step-sister, an Art of Spirited Away book, and some slippers. It was also our first Christmas with our new kittens that we got about a month earlier. (I apologize for the crappy pictures taken from my iPhone.)

Saturday, December 21, 2013

What Were LaserDisc Games?

The short lived craze that helped reignite interest in video games and animation.

For those who didn't grow up during the 1980s or early '90s the word 'LaserDisc' may not exactly be familiar. Think of LaserDiscs as the record size prototype of the DVD. LaserDiscs were first manufactured in 1978, arriving shortly after the VHS beat out Betamax. Unlike the DVD or the Betamax, LaserDiscs utilized disc based technology, resulting in higher quality image and audio quality. LaserDiscs were also the first format to include extra discs filled with extra features. Despite these advantages of the LaserDisc, it wan't until the DVD arrived that optical discs became the preferred video format. LaserDiscs were considerably more expensive than VHS tapes in most regions, very large/awkward to hold, could not record shows on TV, and could not store as much length as the VHS. Thus LaserDiscs were not popular with most of the American public, save for movie buffs or the dedicated otaku.

Laserdiscs: the record sized forerunner of the DVD.

However, LaserDiscs did manage to make a significant (if short-lived) impact on the animation and video game industries. While the idea of the interactive movie was not new at the time (The short film Kinoautomat [1967] is largely considered to be the first.), LaserDiscs made the use of interactive movies more widespread due to their ability to skip back and forth between segments of film and nonlinear play devices. For those unfamiliar with them, interactive movies can be best be described as the video game equivalent of  'Choose Your Own Adventure' books, where the player's actions dictate the result of the film depending on which choices they make. Many LaserDisc games required 'quick time events' where the player has to press the correct sequence of buttons within a short given amount of time, or else they will die. This happens very frequently in LD games, because in order to progress, you must memorize the button sequence. (Thus many quarters are quickly lost if you play them in arcades.)

Enter the Dragon's Lair

Although the first LaserDisc game, Astron Belt (Sega, 1983), was actually a rail shooter that used some footage from Star Trek 2: Wrath of Khan, the first widely successful game was Dragon's Lair.  Released later the same year by ex-Disney animator Don Bluth, Dragon's Lair proved to be so popular that several machines were reportedly broken by children playing on them too frequently. Dragon's Lair is widely credited for saving the sagging arcade industry and renewing public interest in video games after the fall of Atari. It also gave Bluth the much needed money to fund his additional feature films and thus encouraged him and others animators to make material beyond cheap Saturday morning cartoons.

The reason for the game's appeal was simple. Unlike other popular games of the time which utilized simple, pixelated sprites, Dragon's Lair featured high quality hand-drawn animation, which gave the game a greater sense of 'realism'. (Well, realistic enough for a fantasy story about a dim-witted and cowardly knight ['Dirk the Daring'] determined to save a scantly clad princess from a fearsome dragon.) Dragon's Lair was even successful enough to have a sequel released in 1991, which is fondly (or not so fondly remembered) for its rather bizarre time-traveling plot. Dragon's Lair also received several ports to other systems (including the infamous NES version) and had a short-lived cartoon series with noticeably bad animation provided by Ruby-Spears.

Gameplay of Dragon's Lair making it look extremely easy.

In reality, you die a lot. Say goodbye to your quarters!

In 1984, Don Bluth released Space Ace, which is essentially Dragon's Lair in Space. The game had a higher budget with smoother animation, more sound effects better voice acting, and of course, a good dose of strangeness. Thayer's Quest also hit arcades the same year. Although the game was developed by RDI Video Systems (the studio that released Dragon's Lair and Space Ace), Thayer's Quest was made without any involvement from Bluth and has rather shoddy production values in comparison to Bluth's work. Thayer's Quest was initially created for the doomed Halcyon console (which had many advanced capabilities including voice recognition). It ultimately failed due to its extremely steep price of $2,500. In fact, the Halcyon is often cited as the most expensive video game system ever created!

Poster for Space Ace.

Cliff Hanger or Lupin III?

Not all companies could afford to hire American animators like Don Bluth, several of them opted to use footage from anime unreleased in the US at the time and cut it to fit into the storyline they desired. The most famous of these games is Cliff Hanger (1983) which made a cameo appearance in the movie The Goonies. Cliff Hanger was created using footage from two Lupin III games, primarily from The Castle of Cagliostro. As with many anime games released overseas, Cliffhanger had hilarious bad dubbing done directly over the original Japanese and many of the characters in the films either had their names changed or were cut out completely.

Bega's Battle (Sega, 1983) was a rail shooter with footage taken from the anime Harmagedon. Like many popular games of the time, it was featured on Starcade. It had a notoriously violent opening sequence, where a man's face is shown mutating and melting off. (And, yes, this game was marketed towards children.) The anime itself is pretty awful and forgettable despite being directed by Rintaro and produced by Madhouse. Curiously enough, two other of Rintaro's movies,  Galaxy Express 999 and Adieu Galaxy Express 999, were adapted into a 1987 LaserDisc game called Freedom Fighter. Freedom Fighter was the only game before developer Millennium Games shut down. It is thus very rare and highly sought out by collectors.

Cliff Hanger! The game that keeps you on your toes!

Genki Girls & Ninjas: Japanese LaserDisc Games

Several game developers in Japan also made LD games. Super Don Quix-ote (Universal, 1984) which is only notable for being very loosely inspired by Don Quixote and for having low budget animation on par of Thayer.Badlands (Konami, 1984) was a far more interesting game. It plays out as a Western style shooter starring Buck, a cowboy on a quest to avenge the deaths of his wife and children who were murdered by a band of outlaws. Despite, its solemn sounding setup, Badlands is actually quite humorous and silly at times due to its particularly bizarre and nonsensical death animations and random mix of American and Japanese cultural references. On a similar note, Sega also released a vengeance game in 1985. Road Blaster is a racing/shooter game where you play a man tracking down a gang of bikers who killed his wife. Unlike Badlands, the game maintains a fairly serious tone throughout. 

Outside of Don Bluth and Cliff Hanger, perhaps the best remembered LaserDisc games were made by Taito. In 1984, the company released Ninja Hayate, a game suspiciously similar to Dragon's Lair. It is about a Dirk-like ninja who attempts to rescue a princess from a feudal Japanese castle. (Ninja Hayate also bears more than a passing resemblance to another Taito game, The Legend of Kage.) Time Gal (1985) is commonly bundled with the above and is the more famous of the two. The game is set in the year 3001. You play as a skimpily dressed girl named Reika who must travel between different time periods in search of the criminal Luda in order to prevent him from altering the past. Time Gal was one of Japan's more popular LaserDisc titles, receiving numerous ports to different systems over the years. This is no doubt due to the main character being a typical excitable, ditzy 'cute' anime girl (who looks a lot like Lum from Urusei Yatsura). She laughs, spews random English and makes various pop cultural references while being chased. Half of her 'death' animations just involve her being shamed in some way or nearly losing an article of clothing. (This is actually quite creepy once you realize that several of these death sequences cut to a clip of Luda laughing.)

I'm not sure if these death sequences are annoying or hilarious. 

The Decline & Legacy of LaserDisc Games

By the late 1980s, the number of notable LaserDisc games being made began to decline rapidly as the popularity of the format waned. This is because once someone figures out the pattern of buttons needed to be pressed and sequences to choose in these games, the games have practically no replay value beyond showing off your skills to your friends. LD games thus get very repetitive over time and are often quite similar to one another in gameplay and in structure. The only major producer of LD games in the late 1980s and the early '90s was American Laser Games, which made a total of ten games up until 1994. Unlike most developers, American Laser Games used cheaply shot live-action footage which has little enjoyment beyond its camp value. All of their titles were light rail shooters which had lousy green screen effects. Most of their games were either Westerns, space dramas, or crime narratives. In 1991, Dragon's Lair's co-creator, Rick Dyer, released Time Traveler through Sega. The LD game was the first video game to utilize holographic imagery, however its standard plot about traveling through time in order to rescue to the protagonist's girlfriend may have weakened its appeal. Ultimately, Time Traveler's gimmick could not save LaserDisc games. Within four years, the DVD was introduced and the LaserDisc quickly faded into obscurity.

Although LD games were short-lived, they managed to greatly influence the future of gaming. Dragon's Lair helped re-spark public interest in the medium after the Video Game Crash of 1983. LD games pioneered the notion that games could use branching paths based upon the player's choice, introduced the notion of cutscenes to gaming, and introduced full animation to gaming. While interactive movies remain a niche market, several notable ones have been made in recent years, including Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls. Although these games are far more sophisticated, they owe a lot to their LaserDisc heritage.

What's the point of a low budget game if it's not animated?

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Best Environmental Epic: The Case for Princess Mononoke

Can a film be both entertaining and enlightening at once?

The film Princess Mononoke, has many similarities to other environmental fantasies. As in Avatar, Ferngully: The Last Rainforest and Pocahontas, the protagonist, Ashitaka, is a young man who becomes drawn into a conflict between the forces of nature and humans who are clear-cutting a large forest. The protagonist also meets a woman of another culture (in this case, San, a girl raised by wolves) whom he falls in love with. This plot structure is by no means a new one, as several people have noted that Avatar, might as well have been titled 'Dances with Smurfs' or 'Blue Pocahontas.' Due to their heavy reliance on this formula, films of this kind are often criticized for their reduction of environmental themes and failure to look at tangible solutions. However, Princess Mononoke differs from the three other mentioned films in the way it represents humanity’s relationship with nature, and the protagonist’s relationship with other cultures and minorities. 

Issues Common to Environmental Epics

Is it man vs nature or nature versus man? 

The main problem with many of these ‘ecologically aware’ films is that they tend to over simplify the complex relationship between man and the environment. They seem to state that nature is inherently good and superior to humanity, and that the means used to aid development are inherently bad. These movies often fail to take into account that humans, like other species, are motivated by their own survival. Although clearing land certainly has negative effects on trees and displaces other populations, it is often done to avoid issues such as human overcrowding and to feed growing settlements. Since the environment is rarely altered by a sole force, people are not often displaced by a single aggressor’s selfish actions. Realistically, people won’t suddenly stop all actives that harm the environment, because we depend on its resources. However, we can try to use technology in ways that are less detrimental to our surrounding environment.

Another issue common to environmental epics that portray native peoples are the archetypes of the white savior and the noble savage. The white savior is commonly defined as a white man who learns the ways of a primitive, nature-oriented tribe and decides to help them fight off his own people's colonialism, recognizing that the cause of the natives is just and the conquerors are the villains. This implies that, despite the hero’s apparently good intentions, people of Anglo-Saxon decent are superior to ingenious peoples. Without the help of the white man the minorities remain disempowered. The noble savage is a stock character who serves as an idealized individual who symbolizes the innate goodness of one unexposed to civilization and its corrupting influences. Noble savages are heavily romanticized and are often depicted as being more ‘pure’ and in tune with the natural world. This thinking is problematic, because it does not portray tribal peoples in contemporary reality. Instead, they are viewed as being trapped in a uncontaminated realm of nature which likely never existed.

The Environment in James Cameron’s Avatar

Avatar is largely a visual experience and relies on many plot cliches.

In James Cameron’s 2009 film, Avatar, The Resources Development Administration (RDA) is mining on the planet of Pandora to search for a rare fuel substance. RDA’s private security force is led by Colonel Miles Quaritch. Quaritch has absolutely no regard for any of the lifeforms on Pandora. He is given no backstory, save for mentioning that he received the large scars on his face on the first day he arrived on Pandora. The movie’s message is profoundly simplified by Quaritch’s unrealistic dialogue, which includes lines such as, “I can do it with minimal casualties to the indigenous,” and “We'll clear them out with gas first. It'll be humane. More or less.” The movie opts for peaceful solutions in order to find a way in which humankind and the Na’vi people of Pandora can coexist. However, Avatar quickly dissolves into a number of flashy battle sequences and explosions to show off the film’s special effects. 

Guess which one is the bad guy.

Avatar’s protagonist, Jack Sully, arrives on Pandora as an ungainly military recruit. However, over the course of the film, Jack gains the trust of the Na’vi and becomes mates with chieftain’s the daughter, Neytiri. Jack tames a Toruk, a large dragon-like creature, then leads the Na’vi into battle, thus fulfilling his role as the white savior. Likewise, the computer generated Na’vi are idealized portrayals of native peoples. They are depicted with lean, muscular bodies that are largely unclothed, and can communicate directly with nature via their braid-like sensory organs.

The Environment in Fox’s Ferngully

Hot male lead? Check. Exotic Chick? Check. Native Aborigines? Screw that, we've got fairies!

Like Avatar, Ferngully’s antagonists are similarly unrealistic. In 20th Century Fox’s 1992 film, the malefactor is Hexxus. Hexxus is an ancient being that was sealed away in a tree by the fairies of the rainforest. After being accidentally released when some loggers cut down the tree, Hexxus proceeds to take revenge for his imprisonment by manipulating two of the loggers controlling a bulldozer. Portraying deforestation and pollution in this manner is problematic because it takes the blame of environmental issues off of humanity and places it on a nonexistent deity. By the end of the movie, the hero, Zak, returns to the human world and leaves the fairies alone. However, in a real world situation, the humans would undoubtedly return to the rainforest in order to harvest its scarce resources.

Additionally, Zak Young is introduced as a fit, smooth-talking character. He is shown to be superior to the other lower-class workers, who are depicted as greedy and lazy by visual references to over-consumption of junk food and their littering of their work areas, as well as the fairies who live in the Ferngully Rainforest. The fairies are impressed by Zac’s mastery of technology, as demonstrated when Zac brings the fairies together with music generated from his giant cassette player. The fairies conveniently replace the Aboriginal Australians as ‘noble savages’, perhaps in an attempt to be more politically correct. Although neither the humans and fairies initially believe that the other exists, the truly mythologized beings in Ferngully are indigenous people who are fantasized as extinct and indicated only by the remnant rock paintings. Like the Na’vi, the fairies are depicted as an ideal ‘other’, living in complete harmony with nature via extraordinary, magical means. For instance, Crysta (the fairy female lead and romantic interest to Zac) is is able to make a seed grow into a towering tree by pressing a seed in her hand and the fairies can fly trough the rainforest at impossibly fast speeds.

Still this movie manages to be pretty entertaining due to its hilariously outdated dialogue and bad '90s pop music.

The Environment in Disney’s Pocahontas

"Let's keep quiet about this film's less glamorous, real life basis."

In Disney’s Pocahontas (1995), the story takes place in a fictionalized timeline during 1607 where the British settlers of the Virginia Company arrive in the New World. They are led by Governor John Ratcliffe, who desires to obtain one thing beyond anything else: gold. Unlike the other antagonists from Avatar and Ferngully, Ratcliffe is based on a real person, as Pocahontas is loosely adapted from a historic event. This is where the film’s problems arise. The movie attempts to promote understanding between the colonists and the Native Americans. However, it also makes history easier for American audiences to swallow by glossing over the less attractive aspects of European settlement of Native American lands. 

 John Smith is the film’s white savior. Pocahontas risks her life to save Smith because she essentially falls in love with the first white man she sees.The movie’s underlying message, which extolls cultural understanding and the respect for others and the environment, is downplayed by the film’s focus on romantic fantasy. The Native Americans in Pocahontas are similarly fantasized, even though they are an actual group of people, not a fictional race. Along with demonstrating her care for the natural world by singing songs and having adorable animal sidekicks, Pocahontas is shown to be very attractive and voluptuous, with tan long legs, silky black hair, and almond shaped eyes. By focusing on such superficial details, however, Pocahontas, as with Avatar and Ferngully, skips over the uglier aspects of human nature and history. The plot is altered, avoiding Pocahontas’s passage to England, her separation from her people, conversion to Christianity, marriage to John Rolfe, and her death at age 21 from tuberculosis in England.

The Environment in Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke

Nature is beautiful and terrifying. 

Even though Princess Mononoke is set between the 14th and 16th century in Japan, it addresses several of the issues that are simplified or ignored in the previously mentioned films. There are no stereotypical ‘villains’ in Princess Mononoke as each side is shown to have their own needs and justifications. Lady Eboshi of Irontown is seemingly cold-hearted when she is introduced. After all, she drove the boars out of the forest to mine for iron-sand. She shot the boar god, Nago, causing him to become a demon and later pass his curse onto the protagonist, Ashitaka. However, Eboshi is shown to be compassionate. She offers prostitutes employment as bellows workers, and she secretly hires lepers to manufacture firearms. Despite that many of Eboshi’s actions are questionable it is easy to sympathize with her, especially when one considers that she is part of a traditionally marginalized group herself because she is a woman.  

Lady Eboshi: Both ruthless and kind.

Nature is shown to be divine and otherworldly in places, demanding one’s respect. The forest of the Shishigami is considered to be a scared place and the Emishi are one of the few people left who respect nature and worship animistic gods. Although it is easy to be impressed at the beautifully rendered landscapes in Princess Mononoke and feel sympathy for the animals who are being driven from their homes, it is also easy to be frightened or disgusted by them. The animals are not hapless victims of cruel humans, they fight back viciously to the death. They are large and imposing, and not as cute or as marketable as the fairies in Ferngully or Pocahontas’s pet raccoon, Meeko. The deer god, the Shishigami, is also portrayed as being a rather ambiguous figure. He gives and takes away life, acting primarily as the caretaker of natural causes. The Shishigami does not become actively involved in the struggle between human development and the nature, until he is beheaded by Lady Eboshi. He then threatens to wipe out both humanity and the entire forest, as he becomes lost in madness searching for his head. 

The Shishigami, giver of life and death. 

Symbolically, this could represent the destructive nature of war, and the consequences it has for both sides of the battle. Ultimately, this is what Princess Mononoke is about and what Avatar, Ferngully and Pocahontas fail to address. If Eboshi and Irontown win the battle, then the forest and its gods and animals disappear. However, if nature wins, Irontown and its inhabitants will cease to exist. There are no simple answers, and the differing factions of humanity and nature can only hope to come to a solution by attempting to understand one another. The only true villain in Princess Mononoke is hate. Ashitaka combats with it throughout the film, between others and within himself, as represented by the curse which will kill him if he cannot find a cure. It is not until the end of Princess Mononoke that the curse is finally lifted, after both nature and the warring sides of humanity come to realize that they have nearly destroyed each other.

Although Princess Mononoke has an attractive male lead, he is not the typical Hollywood hero nor is he a typical Japanese hero. As opposed to being a white, or in this case a Yamato Japanese, man, Ashitaka is a member of a traditionally marginalized (and now extinct) cultural group, the Emishi. Ashitaka is initially a reluctant hero. He does not want to leave his homeland but is forced to do so after he becomes cursed by Nago. Unlike many of the samurai protagonists seen in Japanese period dramas, Ashitaka is a pacifist who struggles with his own anger. When his cursed right hand nearly strikes Eboshi, Ashitaka remarks, “If it would lift the curse, I'd let it tear you apart. But even that wouldn't end the killing now, would it?” He is torn between siding with the outcast people in Irontown and San and the animals who are being driven out of the forest, as he can relate to both groups.

Ashitaka, the cursed, othered protagonist.

San, the Princess Mononoke, is the closet thing the film offers us to a ‘noble savage’ or an ‘Indian princess.’ But like nature, San is not overly idealized in Princes Mononoke. San is a young woman, but does not wear a revealing dress. She is depicted with blood smeared across her face the first time Ashitaka sees her, after sucking at a bullet wound in Moro’s chest. She is kind to most animals of the forest, her adoptive mother, Moro, and her wolf brothers. On the other hand, her hatred towards Lady Eboshi and humans is so pronounced that she is willing to throw away her life in order to defend the forest and avenge the death of its animals. Unlike a conventional Disney princess, San does not ‘fall for the first man she sees.’ At first, she hates Ashitaka because he is human and simply tells him to, “Go away.” When Ashitaka saves San from harm in Irontown and returns her to the woods, San is furious with him because Ashitaka has ruined her opportunity to kill Eboshi. In a sense, the gender roles are somewhat reversed as Ashitaka (the man) pleads for both women, San and Eboshi, to put down their knives and talk. 

As with Eboshi, San is another complex female character.

It is only when Ashitaka’s gun wound is healed by the Shishigami, that San ponders over Ashitaka’s behavior, and develops feelings for him. This causes her to go through denial at several points in the film. Moro tells Ashitaka that his desire to live with San is futile because, “My poor, ugly, beautiful daughter is neither wolf nor human. She lives with the forest, and so she too will die with the forest.” True to her mother’s words, San does not return back to the human world with Ashitaka at the end of the movie. Even though she loves Ashitaka and helps him return the Shishigami’s head, her mistrust toward humans never fully disappears. If San had gone with Ashitaka, she would have being denying an important part of her own nature. 

Because of Princess Mononoke’s complex themes and refusal to rely on conventional clich├ęs and stock characters, the relationship between man and nature are more throughly explored than in most environmental epics, even if it does not offer a definitive answer to society’s problems. Princess Mononoke does, however, suggest that the first step in solving such problems is to build understanding between people with differing opinions. 

"Life is suffering. Life is hard. The world is cursed. But still you find reasons to keep living."

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Jazz and Dancing Walruses: Making Sense of a Surreal Fleshier Cartoon

Cab Calloway and his animated counterpart.

Who Was Minnie the Moocher?

"Minnie the Moocher" is a famous jazz style song first recorded in 1931 by Cab Calloway. The song has been covered by numerous other performers over the years and appeared in the 1980 film, The Blues Brothers. It is most famous for its use of various scat lyrics and verses which the audience repeats back to the performer. As with two other Cab Calloway songs, "St. James Infirmary Blues" and "The Old Man on the Mountain," "Minnie the Moocher" was adapted into a Pre-Hays Code Betty Boop cartoon by the Fleisher Brothers. In these cartoons Calloway provides both the vocals and dance steps via rotoscoping.

The song portion of the cartoon occurs when Betty runs away from home with her boyfriend, Bimbo (an anthropomorphic black dog), after arguing with her parents. Betty and Bimbo quickly become scared of walking alone in the dark and enter a nearby cave. As they walk inside, they are suddenly confronted by a large ghost walrus voiced by Cab Calloway. The walrus, accompanied by menagerie of spirits and bizarre imagery, suddenly breaks into song:

Why a ghost walrus? What did I just watch?

Making sense of the meaning of Cab Calloway’s lyrics and this short’s imagery may seem perplexing at first, as "Minnie the Moocher’s" unusual and often disturbing visuals were heavily influenced by the surrealism movement that began in the early 1920s in Europe. By 1932, when this cartoon was made, artists such as Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte and Marcel Duchamp had achieved international recognition. Surrealistic art focuses on visualizing the subconscious and has no clear, manifest meanings. However, hidden (latent) meanings can potentially be uncovered by trying to interpret how the abstract images interact with each other and invoke feelings.

The surrealism is so strong in this cartoon, that it even frightens its own protagonists!

Using this approach, one could argue that "Minnie the Moocher" is essentially about the dangers of engaging in reckless behavior driven by selfish desires. Although a commonly overlooked fact today, jazz music was considered 'edgy' when it first became popular in the earlier half of the 20th century. This was not only due to the music’s various drug and sexual references, but also due to the fact that it lacked a traditional, structured musical arrangement in favor of improvisation. Many members of older generations saw jazz as immoral. They associated jazz with the wild behaviors of the 1920s, as it often played in speakeasies. (Also some people had racist assumptions about jazz due to its African American origins.)

Calloway with his band at the Cotton Club.

The Song's Lyrics & Meaning

The woman in the song, Minnie, is described as a 'red hot hoochie coocher.' The hoochie coochie was a sexually provocative belly dance that originated in the late 1800s. Despite of her unscrupulous occupation, Minnie is described as being kind, having 'a heart as big as a whale.' Minnie sees the man Smokey, who is likely one of her customers, as a way out of her lower class lifestyle. Minnie imagines becoming rich and owning various status symbols including 'a home built of gold and steel' and 'a diamond car with platinum wheels.' 

Unfortunately, Smokey is a drug addict. He is described as being ‘kokey,’ meaning that he takes cocaine. Smokey also passed his bad habits onto Minnie when he ‘showed her how to kick the gong around’, which means he introduced her to opium. Minnie’s dreams of wealth are nothing more than a hallucination brought on by drugs. They will never come to fruition. (A later version of “Minnie the Moocher” includes extra verses where Minnie attempts to bail Smokey out of jail but is dumped and where Minnie meets a religious man but is unable to give up her ways. It concludes with Minnie being sent to mental asylum where she later dies.)

Betty Boop does not appear to partake in any drugs in this cartoon, but she does find herself in a dark, dream-like world while listening to Cab Calloway’s song. While Betty did not deal with any of the problems Minnie ran into, it is implied that bad behavior grows over time, starting with a single selfish act. Even if the act seems small or incidental, it can still lead to trouble. (The character of Betty Boop was built upon the popular flapper and virgin personas, being both ‘sexy’ and ‘innocent.’) The walrus and the other ghosts, be they imagined or not, chase Betty and Bimbo back home in order to make them avoid making mistakes like Minnie and Smokey did. The drunk skeletons are a visual warning of overindulgence. This was a relevant concern at the time, as this cartoon was released right at the tail end of the Prohibition. The ghost prisoners who get electrocuted stand for the ultimate consequence of breaking an important law: death. The ghost cat nursing the kittens represents how unappreciative and selfish children can be when they suck their parents’ wealth and resources dry. 

Of course, understanding the meaning behind these images doesn't make them any less unsettling.

“Minnie the Moocher” is not only one of Cab Calloway’s most famous songs, it is also one of the Fleisher Brother’s most memorable cartoons. The song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999, and the cartoon version ranked number 20 in the 1994 book, The Fifty Greatest Cartoons: As Selected by 1,000 Animation Professionals. Like many other early Fleisher productions, “Minnie the Moocher” was the opposite of most of Disney’s output. It was made for an older audience, had several drug references, innuendos, and a stranger, less linear storyline. However, “Minnie the Moocher” also warns its audience not to indulge in too many tempting vices, or else their lifetime goals and ambitions will come crashing down.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Happy Halloween!

Here is one of my favorite, if somewhat less talked, about spooky cartoons, 'Pink Plasma' (1975). The cartoon's gags are a bit familiar, but that's probably due to DePatie-Freleng Enterprises being largely staffed by former WB animators. (The Pink Panther's conflict with the vampire bares a lot of resemblance to the Bugs Bunny short, 'Transylvania 6-5000' made 12 years earlier.) 

At any rate, 'Pink Plasma' is pretty entertaining. It's got a great sense of atmosphere and pleantly of fun little sight gags. It's also pretty amazing that theatrical shorts were still be made in the '70s, although not very many. The Pink Panther was really the last major character used for such a format. Enjoy!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Ub Iwerk's The Headless Horseman VS Disney's Sleepy Hollow

It's that time of year again. Carved pumpkins line people's porches and parents grudgingly buy big boxes of candy while their kids decide what to wear for Halloween. Animated cartoons and films have long been made centered around the holiday. In fact, just last year three titles were released alone (Hotel Transylvania, Frankenweenie, and ParaNorman). However, very few such animated films have reached the acclaim of Disney's version of Sleepy Hollow, which curiously was adapted by Disney's rival, Ub Iwerks, over ten years earlier as a theatrical short.

A poster for the 1934 Comicolor short.

A poster for the better known 1949 film.

Because the two films were based on the same story by Washington Irving and were made by staff associated with Disney they have several similarities. But, it is probably easier to notice their differences. The Sleepy Hollow segment was part of Disney's 'package film' series and runs at half an hour, whereas Iwerks's version is under ten minutes long. Since Iwerks's short was made in the 1930s, it utilizes the old school, bouncy rubber hose technique. Its color pallet is also quite limited, since Disney was the only animation studio with the rights of using the three color Technicolor process up until 1936. Instead, the short utilizes the two color Cinecolor process, as did most other cartoon companies at the time.

The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad is far more sophisticated in many ways. Since the movie was made right before Disney released Cinderella, its first 'true' feature since 1942, the animation is fully released and very fluid. It's moody use of Techicolor and perspective greatly heightens the contrasting scenes at Katrina's dinner party and Ichabod's encounter with the Headless Horseman. Ichabod also makes heavy use of dialogue (narrated and sung primarily by Bing Cosby), whereas Iwerks was more comfortable using pantomime and sight gags to get his message across. Thus, the characters in the Disney version are given more of a back story and fleshed out, while Iwerks manages to establish the basics allowed within the short runtime of his cartoon. (Interestingly enough, Ichabod and his rival, Brom Bones, look similar in both films, but Katrina does not. She is noticeably bigger in the 1934 incarnation, which is closer to the original source material. However, Disney's Katrina resembles a more aloof Cinderella.)

Iwerks's Brom Bones, Katrina Van Tassel, and Ichabod Crane. 

Disney's version.

As for the Headless Horseman himself, Disney and Iwerks handle the character rather differently. Both of the horsemen are introduced as menacing figures. Iwerks establishes this using his multiplane camera (which would later be adopted and refined by Disney after Iwerks returned to the studio). The camera adds a sense of depth as the Horseman races across the screen, accompanied by a haunting score by Carl Stalling (who later became famous for composing various Looney Tunes shorts). However, the mysteriousness of the Horseman is quickly pushed aside for laughs. The figure is revealed to be Brom Bones, and Ichabod later crashes Brom's and Katrina's wedding by dressing as the Horseman.

In The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, none of this happens. Although the Horseman is a legendary figure and is implied to be Brom, the events that occur after Ichabod encounters the Horseman are left for the audience to interpret. Ichabod's fate is never fully revealed after his disappearance, giving the audience the choice whether to believe the legend or not.

Iwerks introduces the Headless Horseman via the multiplane camera.

So does Disney, in a more sinister way.

So which film is 'better?' It is really hard to make a fair comparison, since they were made at different points in history and have different intents in terms of entertainment. Both films are historically significant and have very effective musical scores. Those looking for strong character development and a good scare will probably prefer the Disney version. However, anyone simply wanting some light hearted entertainment and a quick laugh will like Iwerks's short.

What do you think? Watch the two films and compare them yourself.

The complete short.

Click here to watch the segment of Disney's film (or else Ichabod will eat his hat). 

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Kino's Journey Trailers and Themes

Outside of reviewing it, the best way to get people to watch a series is to show them promos and clips from it. Today's program of note is Kino's Journey, a criminally underrated anime that ponders over various aspects of human nature, while taking the guise of a 'road-trip movie' of sorts. The English trailer (uploaded by a Spanish speaker) does an excellent job of setting up the show's fairytale like atmosphere and hints at some of its themes, even if it is a bit heavy on the narration. (Curiously, I was unable to find a Japanese trailer. It seems like Kino is not very well known in its home country either.) 

The second video clip covers Kino's opening and ending themes. To be honest, the opening, "All the Way," doesn't really suit this show's aesthetics. While the song is not terrible, it is simply too cheery and uptempo given Kino's content. The closing theme, "The Beautiful World," is thankfully, slower and more contemplative. (Kino's voice actress, Ai Maeda, apparently sung both of the themes.) Most of Kino's Journey's music is similarly low key and sounds as if it were being played from afar, tying into the show's minimalist style. This is clearly demonstrated by the third song embedded here, "He is Speed and I am Balance."

Kino's Journey (TV Series Review)

Director: Ryotaro Nakamura

Company: ACGT, Genco Inc.

Year: 2003

Country: Japan

Despite it's simplistic appearance, there are a lot dense subjects covered in this unusual little series.

I have a confession to make: I don't like most post-2000 anime series. The shift in animation style, obsession with pre-adolesent girls, excessive fan service, abundance of gore, and high school dramedies make me wary (and weary) of many popular anime. Fortunately, a show comes out once in a while that reminds me why I continue to watch and love it. 

One of the reasons why I avoid many anime.

Kino's Journey (Kino no Tabi) subverts many of these cliches. At first glance, this isn't too apparent. Kino's animation is rather limited, its protagonist has a large doll eyed face, and its opening theme is an overly peppy J-pop song. Outside of these factors though, the show bears little resemblance to the likes of Naruto or Inuyasha. Based on the light novel by Keiichi Sigsawa, the series follows a young traveler who journeys to various countries astride a talking motorcycle named Hermes. Kino only spends three days and two nights in each country, before moving to the next.

Each of the different societies that Kino and Hermes visit have their own distinctive cultures and flaws. Many of these societies have tired to find ways to alleviate their troubles. However, they often fail to predict the long term consequences of their ideas (such a one country that created an invention that reads peoples' minds). Some of the countries are hospitable and kind; others are corrupt and are ruled with an iron fist. The various people Kino encounters all have differing motives. While their motives may not seem justified at first, they are all merely trying to survive.

Kino meets some friendly, but rather eccentric locals. 

It's also interesting to compare and contrast the two main characters. Hermes is very childlike and naive. He constantly worries about his immediate needs and tends to live in the present. Because of his impulsiveness, Hermes is often used as a source of comic relief in tenser moments of the show. However, Hermes is also very curious and can be rather insightful about things he observes (even if does tend to mispronounce words or botch up famous quotes). Most importantly, Hermes gives Kino someone to talk to on her seemingly endless journey. Their friendship is represented by the fact that they need each other in order to travel. Hermes provides the speed, while Kino provides balance as she rides him.

Fun Fact: Hermes is a Brough Superior motorcycle, the same bike T.E. Lawrence of Arabia rode.

On the other hand, Kino keeps as calm as possible and tries to asses the situation before making any move. While Kino can appear distant at times and seem hard to relate with, she is actually a very kind person. Kino choses not to get involved in situations, unless she absolutely has to. Many times she is faced with difficult choices. She constantly must decide if she should intervene or not if the rights of others are being violated. Kino tries not to get overly attached to any place, as she is constantly on the move. She enjoys meeting people but is afraid of settling down, likely due to her past and own traumatic childhood.

Kino's gender is often discussed among the show's fans, as it is not revealed until the fourth episode. Kino is female, but looks fairly androgynous. Her hair is cut short. She wears baggy, practical clothes, and she often uses the Japanese masculine pronoun, boku, to refer to herself. (The Japanese language does not have grammatical gender, but the speech women and men use tend to differ.) Kino is a nonconformist. She prefers not to attach any labels to herself or other people. (This was something she learned from the original Kino whom she named herself after.) Thus, Kino refuses to let gender or any other any other category define who she is. 

A younger Kino and Hermes.

Kino's Journey is ultimately about the contradicting aspects of human nature and how we must make the best we can out of seemingly bad situations. Kino is reluctant to use violence, but always carries firearms for protection because she knows that people are not angels. Each of us has the capacity to do incredible good or bad. But the bad has a purpose: true beauty can only really be appreciated if there is pain.

Kino the pacifist.

Although Kino's Journey moves at a slower rate than many anime series, it benefits the show rather than hampering it. Kino's tranquil pace allows time for the audience to digest what they have seen on screen, as they try to wrap their heads around its physiological undertones. (Much of what takes place on screen is left for the viewer to interpret on their own.) If you are looking for an action-oriented, explosive heavy anime, you better look elsewhere. Likewise, if you are craving a highly complex drama, with multiple characters, you won't find it here. However, Kino's Journey's minimalism works largely in its favor. The anime is straight to the point, it does not gloss over the ugliness of life, but it is not overly pessimistic either. 

This show is a testament that a high budget and special effects wizardry are not necessary to make a compelling storyline and create distinctive characters. Substance over style always trumps style over substance. If all we see on screen is escapist comedy and brainless action, it amuses for a while, like candy, but it has no value beyond that. Kino' Journey is a show to be thoroughly digested and analyzed.  

"The world is not beautiful, therefore it is."

Rating: 4/5

About the Dub: While ADV Film's dub is not the worst one out there, it is recommended that viewers stick to watching the original Japanese. (This shouldn't be too demanding, since the animation in this show can be rather static.) Kino's voice actress, Kelli Collins, sounds a bit old for the character and her voice is often monotonous. This isn't an issue in scenes where Kino is quietly contemplating things, but her performance can be a bit lacking at times. Cynthia Martinez as Hermes is another story. Her acting sounds overly raspy and 'cartoony'. Hermes is a comic relief bike, so one may think he lends to a funny sounding voice, but this one just comes of as irritating. All of the other background characters sound merely serviceable. 

Monday, September 30, 2013

10 Notable Female Animators

Outside of acting, relatively few women get recognized for their efforts in the film industry. This is particularly noticeable in the animation field. While things have certainly improved since the earlier half of the 20th century (where a women had little hope of doing anything but inking, painting, or in-betweening), it is still far more common for female animators and directors to work independently, rather than within the studio system. Female comic book artists are also more common, perhaps for the same reason. Many of them (such as Kaja Foglio [Girl Genius], Kate Beaton [Hark! A Vagrant], and Tracy J. Butler [Lackadaisy]) have met great success 'publishing' on the internet. While women still aren't nearly as common as male cartoonists, they have began to appear in larger numbers in recent years. Below is a list of the ten notable female animators that helped pave way for other artists in the field.

1. Lotte Reiniger

Reiniger's complex stop-motion technique is based on Chinese shadow puppets.

Lotte Reiniger is commonly acknowledged not only as the first significant female animator, but also as a pioneering stop-motion animator. Lotte grew up in Berlin and first became fascinated with film after seeing the works of Georges Melies. In 1918, she was assigned her first major job, animating the wooden rats created for the intertitles for Paul Wegener's The Pied Piper of Hamelin. Shortly after, Reiniger began directing her own short films in her trademark silhouette cutout fashion. She directed seven shorts between 1919 and 1922, which were produced and photographed by her husband, Carl Koch.

After three years of hard work, her feature length film The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) was finally released, beating out Snow White by over a decade. The film was loosely based on One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, and met enough success to allow Lotte to direct a second feature, Doctor Dolittle and his Animals, in 1928. Unfortunately, Lotte and her family were forced to flee Germany after the Nazi regime took control. She lived out the rest of her years in Paris and in London, were she continued to make short fairytale films for advertising companies, BBC, and Telecasting America.

Prince Achmed is the oldest surviving animated film.

2. Lillian Friedman Astor

Friedman was one the first women to work at a major animation studio.

When Lillian Friedman Astor was rejected by Disney, she was not deterred. Instead, she applied to rival studio Fleisher Brothers in 1930 at the age of 19. Within three years, she was 'secretly' promoted from the lowly rank of inker to head animator by Shamus Culhane. She was responsible for animating many key scenes in the popular Betty Boop and Popeye cartoons, as well as several Comicolor titles. Her work includes: "Can You Take It?" (1934), "Betty Boop's Prize Show" (1934), "Be Human" (1936), "Hawaiian Birds" (1936), "Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor" (1936) and "Pudgy and the Lost Kitten" (1938).

Although she didn't always receive screen credit and was paid considerably less than her male counterparts, Friedman was apparently very pleased to have a job at Fleisher. So much so in fact, she was rumored to have named her dog Popeye! In 1939, Freedman retired from animating in order to raise her family. Despite her short career, she inspired several others to follow her footsteps and not to be afraid to showcase their talents in a traditionally male run profession.

The classic cartoon "Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor".

3. Mary Blair

While technically not an animator, Mary Blair hugely influenced the look of many classic Disney films. 

Perhaps no other women at Disney was as well recognized as Mary Blair. She first began working at Disney in 1940 alongside her husband Lee Blair, after previously working at Ub Iwerks Studio and Harman-Ising Studios. Unlike other female employees at Disney at the time (such as Retta Scott and Retta Davidson), Mary Blair was a concept artist and a scenery designer. Blair's art is characterized by her bold use of colors, angular forms, patterns, and simplified shapes. Her style was heavily influenced by her 1941 trip to various South American countries with other Disney artists, as part of Roosevelt's 'Good Neighbor Policy.'

Her designs and storyboards were crucial in the process of creating several animated features including: The Three Caballeros (1944), Song of the South (1946), Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951) and Peter Pan (1953). After briefly resigning from Disney after Peter Pan and working as a childern's book illustrator, Mary Blair helped create the It's a Small World attraction for Disneyland in 1964. Additionally, she created several murals for the theme park up until 1971. For those interested, much of Blair's artwork can be viewed here.

A sampling of Blair's unique concept art.

4. Faith Hubley

Faith and her husband, John, reviving an oscar in 1966. 

Faith Hubley began working in the film industry at only 15, when she left home to work in a theater. She made her way to Hollywood three years later. Her first job was as a messenger for Columbia Pictures. Later, Faith worked at Republic Pictures, where she became a music editor and scripts clerk. In 1955, she married animator John Hubley, who had previously worked for Disney and UPA. Soon after, they founded their own independent company, Storyboard Studios. The goal of the studio was to produce one film per year. Both Faith and John made a total of 20 shorts together, between 1957 to 1977.

These films met much acclaim due to their free-form visuals and use of dialogue from actual childern (usually their own), as opposed to using adult actors. Indeed, much of the dialogue in their shorts is nonlinear in nature, and often focuses on relishing things in life that some might consider mundane. The best known shorts the two made are arguably "Moonbird" (1959), "The Hole" (1962), "A Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass Double Feature" (1966), and "Windy Day", all of which won or received Oscar nominations. When John died in 1977, Faith continued to make films on her own up until her own death in 2001. (It should also be noted that Tissa David [who was the second female animator to direct a feature film, and animated the female lead in Raggedy Ann and Andy: A Musical Adventure] frequently worked with the Hubleys.)

A still from "Windy Day" (1967) demonstrating the Hubleys' minimalist style. 

5. Sally Cruikshank

Quite possibly the most abstract animator on this list, Cruikshank's films are like no other.

Sally Cruikshank's work is undeniably weird, but extremely creative and mesmerizing. She was drawn to animation at a young age, citing the surreal 1930s shorts of the Fleisher Brothers, Bob Clampett, and Carl Barks's comics as influences. After completing her education at Smith College and thoroughly studying an animation book by Preston Blair, Cruikshank released her first piece in 1971, the three minute "Ducky". Encouraged by feedback from her peers, Cruikshank enrolled at the San Francisco Art Institute. After graduating, she produced her most well known short, "Quasi at the Quackadero" (1975), which features two of Cruikshank's reoccurring characters, the infantile Quasi and the temperamental Anita. In 2009, "Quasi" was added to the National Film Registry, and it was voted #46 in the 1994 book, The Fifty Greatest Cartoons.

Cruikshank produced several other surreal short films during the 1970s and 1980s, including "Make Me Psychic" (1978) and "Face Like A Frog" (1988). In 1980, she proposed an animated feature about her duck-like character entitled Quasi's Cabaret, but the project was ultimately abandoned due to funding issues. However, Cruikshank is fondly remembered by many Gen X'ers for an entirely different reason: she animated several segments for the program Sesame Street.

Cruikshank explains her animation process.

6. Ellen Woodbury

Woodbury working at Disney Studios.

Ellen Woodbury made history in 1994, when she became the first woman animator at Disney to supervise a major character. When Woodbury first entered the field of animation, things looked pretty grim. In the early 1980s, very few studios produced films or television series beyond simplistic children's entertainment. Thus, Woodbury was stuck at the uninspiring Filmation. In 1985, her talent was noticed, and Woodbury moved to Disney. She started as a cleanup artist on The Great Mouse Detective, and eventually was promoted to animator on Oliver and Company and The Little Mermaid. Soon after, she animated several iconic Disney characters including Abu (Aladdin, 1992), Zazu (The Lion King, 1994), and Pegasus (Hercules, 1998). In 2005, Woodbury left Disney and became a full time sculptor. She currently teaches character animation at the Art Institute of Colorado. (Anyone who would like to read more about Woodbury can visit the blog, The 50 Most Influential Disney animators, here.)

A model sheet of Abu for Aladdin. 

7. Suzie Templeton

Never heard of her? She's one of the most talented stop-motion artists around.

Perhaps no other career is as time consuming as being a stop-motion animator. Up until a few years ago (thanks to the invention of 3D printers), the average stop-motion film took around five years to make. For this very reason, the technique is less commonly used than other forms of animation. Yet a handful of artists have perfected the craft. One of them is Suzie Templeton.

Interestingly enough, Templeton was not originally inserted in becoming an animator. Although she helped her brothers make several homemade movies during her childhood, Templeton graduated in sciences and held odd jobs in different countries for several years. Dissatisfied, she went back to school and switched to humanities. It was only after seeing Wallace and Gromit, that Templeton entered the realm of animation.

Although she originally planned to work for commercial studios like Aardman, Templeton found the studio model incompatible with her style. So she decided to work independently on more personal projects, than to appeal to the masses. (Perhaps this is because her films tend to deal with dense subjects, such as unhappy marriage, loneliness, and death.) Templeton completed two short films at her university, the Royal College of Art, "Stanley" (1999) and "Dog" (2001), which met much acclaim. In 2006, Templeton released her take on "Peter and the Wolf", a half an hour testament of her skill. It won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film. Currently, Templeton is working on an undisclosed feature film.

All of Templeton's puppets are extremely detailed.

8. Nina Paley

Independent animator, cartoonist, and free culture activist.

Nina Paley is one of the most active female animators today. She made several short films starting at the age of 13, but did not really begin experimenting with animation until 1998, after she published two moderately successful comic strips, Nina's Adventures and Fluff. Some of her shorts made during this period include: "Pandorama" (1999), the world's first camera-less IMAX film, "Fetch!" (2001), a humorous take on optical illusions, and "The Stork" (2002), a commentary about overpopulation and consumerism.

In 2008, Paley generated much attention for her first feature film, Sita Sings the Blues, which interprets the Indian epic The Ramayana from Sita's perspective and compares it to Paley's own marriage struggles. Due to issues with clearing rights for the film's soundtrack, Paley has often criticized the inefficiency of copyright laws. (Perhaps this best demonstrated by her short, "Copying is Not Theft" [2009]). Currently, Paley writes the comic-strip Mimi and Eunice, and is working on a second film entitled Seder Masochism.

In order to fiancee her projects, Paley works as freelance artist. Notably, she designed the Cruzio Wireless cat logo. Paley is entirely self taught. Although she studied art at the University of Illinois, she never took any formal animation classes. Her work may seem simplistic from a technical standpoint, but her attention to detail and sense of composition makes up for it. Paley boldly tackles many controversial topics that many other animators and directors tend to gloss over or avoid, but she does so without being overly mean spirited and with a good dosage of humor.  

Sita Sings the Blues proves that even Flash animation can be used creatively.

9. Brenda Chapman

Chapman is likely the best known female animator today, thanks to Brave (and the controversy surrounding it).

Brenda Chapman has certainly been in the news a lot lately, but her career in film stretches back to 1989, when she worked as a story trainee on Disney's The Little Mermaid after graduating from CalArts with BFA in character animation. Chapman served as a writer and storyboard artist for many renaissance films, such as Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Lion King (1994), and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996). She also worked on several DreamWorks films and co-diercted The Prince of Egypt (1997), making her the first woman to direct an animated feature at a major studio.

In 2003, Brenda moved to Pixar. Five years later, it was announced that she was to direct the company's first fairytale film, The Bear and the Bow, which eventually was renamed Brave. However, Chapman was removed as director due to creative disagreements, and replaced by Mark Andrews. Despite her dissatisfaction with her removal (and move to LucasArts), Brenda was happy with the film's results, and how it remained loyal to the mother-daughter relationship she wanted to portray.

Some impressive concept art for Brave.

10. Lauren MacMullan

Lauren Macmullan (right) with producer Dorothy McKim (left) at the D23 expo. 

Macmullan has directed and storyboarded for several companies over the years. Her speciality seems to be writing for television shows, as she has worked on The Critic, The Simpsons, and Avatar: The Last Airbender, which are some of the most widely acclaimed animated series ever made. Her first venture into film was The Simpsons Movie (2007), where she served as the feature's sequence director.

In 2009, Lauren began creating storyboards for the proposed Pixar film, Newt. Unfortunately, Newt never saw the light of day, due to concerns about its plot being too similar to two other animated films coming out the same year. Lauren Macmullan now seems to be content working at Disney for the time being. She storyboarded Wreck it Ralph (2012), and recently directed a short film starring Mickey Mouse, "Get a Horse!"

Macmullan is known for her use of dramatic lighting and complex facial expressions, two aspects which can often get overlooked in TV animation. Coincidentally, there are two other recent female animators of note that go by the name of Lauren: Lauren Montgomery (Avatar: The Last AirbenderWonder Woman) and Lauren Faust (The Powerpuff Girls, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic).

This Mickey Mouse short will screen alongside Frozen in November.