Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Very Best of Ub Iwerks

To follow up on this week's previous post, here are ten of some the most renowned shorts that Ub Iwerks directed and/or primarily animated. His diverse career and creation of several iconic characters make him a an unsung hero in animation. Ub's cartoons had many common themes. The bouncy, weightless, and funny way his cartoons moved helped found the foundations of rubber hose animation. He loved to use over the top sight gags and spontaneously bring life to inanimate objects. Ub also had a fondness for pianos, aircraft, and the macabre (dancing skeletons!).

1. Steamboat Willie (1928)

One hardly needs an introduction to Steamboat Willie. (If you haven't heard of it, you have been living under a rock for over eighty years.) It was the first cartoon to make heavy and effective use of synchronized sound and Mickey Mouse's (as well as Minnie Mouses's and Pete's) first public appearance. The short received so much acclaim that it was added to the National Film Registry in 1998 due to its historical importance and lasting impact. The title of the short's name is actually a parody of the Buster Keaton film Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928). In Steamboat Willie, like all early Mickey Mouse shorts, Mickey is far more mischievous than his 'tamer' contemporary counterpart, much akin to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.

2. The Karnival Kid (1929)

Besides having anamorphic hotdogs, Mickey Mouse's 9th cartoon was notable for using actual dialogue. Mickey speaks for the first time, his first lines being, "Hotdogs! Hotdogs!" and, "It's a bum hootch scam keep your money in your pants!" It is up to some debate wether or not Walt Disney voiced Mickey in this short (Walt would voice Mickey regularly up until 1946, when his lungs began too damaged from smoking to allow him do the mouse's squeaky voice.) Mickey's voice is noticeably rougher, causing some to believe he was actually voiced by the famous animation composer Carl Stalling in this cartoon. The scene were where Mickey tips his ear like a hat also inspired Roy Williams to create the iconic Mickey Mouse ears caps. 

3. The Skeleton Dance (1929)

The Skeleton Dance was the first Silly Symphony cartoon produced and is widely regarded as one of the series's most memorable. It was animated entirely by Ub Iwerks himself, no small feat considering that drawing realistically proportioned skeletons is quite challenging. (Iwerks was a very fast worker, being able to create 700 drawings in a single day if needed!) This Halloween favorite pokes fun at horror tropes, with skeletons dancing to a foxtrot and yowling cats to boot. Extreme closeups, xylophone music, and atmospheric lighting are used to great effect. Although the The Skeleton Dance does not have much to offer plot wise, all of the creative characters and unique animation make up for it. Scary has never been so funny.
4. Spooks (1931)

Ub Iwerks just had a thing for skeletons and hunted houses. Flip the Frog was a short lived cartoon character, but the second half of his career really had some great shorts. The song that skeleton band plays is called, "Mysterious Mose," and was featured prominently in a Betty Boop cartoon, from the year before, of the same nameSpooks is just as well crafted as The Skeleton Dance, and is a lot more 'scary' and has snapper timing. How many other cartoons would dare to feature a host luring in a cartoon animal to add to his taxidermy collection? Oh, and if the only house you see during a storm appears haunted, I advice you don't spend the night there.

6. The Office Boy (1932)

In this Pre-Hays Code cartoon, Flip seeks work as an office assistant only to run into trouble with a destructive mouse and a sexy, young typist. No doubt due to the influence of ex-Fleischer Bros. animators and the fact that Ub no longer worked for the more conservative Disney, The Office Boy has quite a few gags that certainly weren't meant for children. Flip's cheery disposition does not put him below cutting in front of the other boys in line for the office job. The Great Depression made him quite competitive for employment, especially when cute girls were involved! The audience can probably also relate to Flip, who was blamed for many problems he encountered at work by his unforgiving and stern boss. 

7. Room Runners  (1932)

Flip the Frog is out of work (again) and attempts to run away from a hotel he owes money to. However, the lady who owns the hotel calls up the police and Flip also has to help a man with a lose tooth and avoid the distraction of a rather scantly clad lady. The result: a lot of mad, slapstick, and politically incorrect insanity! The score for this cartoon is notable as it was done by Carl Stalling, who also composed the music for other Flip cartoons, early Disney cartoons, and later, most famously, for Looney Tunes. It is also interesting to note that Flip does not get the girl at the end of this short. Like quite a few other cartoons by Iwerks, Room Runners does not have a perfect ending for the protagonist, and ends on somewhat of funny, bittersweet note. (Flip gets slapped by the girl and accidentally wrecks the hotel, but gets away from the police and manages to pay the hotel bill.)

8. Funny Face (1932)

Unlike the other Flip cartoons shown here, Funny Face (not to be confused with the Audrey Hepburn movie of the same name) features our hero as a young, lovestruck boy. When Flip is dumped by his (human) girlfriend for another boy, he decides that he needs to disguise himself with a plastic-surgery mask to cover his 'ugly' face. The best gag in the cartoon involves Flip being teased by the masks at Dr. Skinnum's office. Once being insulted, Flip responds back, in song, "Even though I look like heck, you're as ugly as horse's neck!" When Flip saves his girlfriend from a bully, despite losing his mask, he regains his confidence. Looks are not everything after all.

9. Stratos Fear (1933)

Willie Whooper didn't even survive a year as a theatrical cartoon series. However, Willie's outrageous lies about his nonexistent adventures certainly provided an excellent vehicle for inspired animation. In Stratos-fear, Willie's third cartoon, the titular character was redesigned to look less like a boy version of Flip the Frog and to resemble a pudgy, practically ball shaped, over eager child. Stratos-fear, though still very obscure, is the best remembered cartoon of Willie's short lived career. The reason, no doubt, is for the short's outrageous plot (involving Willie hallucinating from laughing gas that he travels to space) and its rather demented animation of numerous bizarre aliens. This makes this short comparable to many of the early Betty Boop and Popeye cartoons in its imagery.

10. Ballon Land (1935)

Was the last cartoon not strange enough for you? Then give this one a try. While most of Iwerks's Comicolor cartoons were rather dull (but lovingly made), a handful of them could be entertaining. The cartoon is basically a cautionary tale about running away from home. When two young ballon kids disobey the warnings of other people in town, they nearly get popped by the menacing Pincushion Man, voiced by Billy Bletcher (best known for his roles as Pete and the Big Bad Wolf at Disney). The cartoon violence in this short is a bit shocking. When the Pincushion Man is accidentally let into town by Ballon Land's foolish gatekeeper, he goes on a violent rampage popping several of the land's residents before he meets his demise. If this cartoon was about actual people, not balloons, it is highly unlikely that so many on screen deaths would have ever made it past the storyboards. 

*Bonus: The Multiplane Camera

After making amends with Walt, Iwerks returned to Disney and made several groundbreaking innovations. One of the most memorable was the multiplane camera. This video clip, narrated by Walt himself, explains how the invention works and how it allowed for more realism to enter cartoons. Multiplane cameras were used all the way up until the making of The Little Mermaid (1989), after which digital processes replaced the need for this complex invention. Today, only three of the Disney multiplane cameras survive: one at the Walt Disney Animation Studios in Burbank - California, another at the Walt Disney Museum in San Francisco, and a final one at The Art of Disney Animation exhibit in Disney Land Paris.    

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Who Was Flip the Frog? (& On Ub Iwerks)

A little known series by the man who (actually) created Mickey Mouse.

Animation owes a lot to the genius of Ub Iwerks. He first began working in at Pesmen-Rubin Art Studio in Kansas city where he met Walt Disney in 1919. The two newspaper illustrators quickly became good friends. In 1922, they entered their first joint animation venture and established Laugh-O' Grams-Studio. Unfortunately, the company lasted just over one year before filling for bankruptcy. But neither Walt or Iwerks were deterred. They moved to Hollywood in 1924 and started to become quite successful. The first cartoon series created by Walt and drawn by team of animators led by Iwerks was The Alice Comedies, which was notable for integrating a live action film star with cartoon characters and hand drawn backgrounds. In 1927, Walt and Ub made a deal with Universal Studios to distribute cartoons under Charles Mintz. Thus, Ub drew up a new cartoon star for Walt, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Oswald was memorable for for his mischievous, carefree nature and tendency to (barely) avoid trouble.

Sadly, Disney and Iwerks fell into a major disagreement with Mintz. Both of them wanted to improve the animation for the Oswald series, but Mintz wanted to slash costs. Since Mintz owned Oswald, Walt and Ub were forced to leave their jobs and start fresh without any other animators. However, Walt and Ub had a secret weapon up their sleeves. In 1928, Ub drew up several funny animal character ideas, and Walt decided he liked a certain mouse best. At the suggestion of his wife, Walt named the mouse Mickey and the rest is history. Contrary to popular belief, Mickey's first cartoon was not Steamboat Willie, but a silent cartoon called Plane Crazy. (Both cartoons were animated single handedly by Ub within a couple of months!). Plane Crazy failed to appeal to test audiences, perhaps because it was too similar to other cartoons at the time. Thus, Steamboat Willie was created utilizing a new novelty in film, synchronized sound. (Although animation had experimented with sound before, the results were rather crude.) As animator Ward Kimball put it, "You have no idea the effect that sound had on film. People went crazy for it."

Before their was a mouse, there was a rabbit.

Ub's original ideas for Mickey's design.

A layout from Steamboat Willie.

Besides creating Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and Mickey Mouse, Iwerks came up with the cartoon characters Clarabelle Cow and Horace Horsecollar. He also directed several of the first Silly Symphony cartoons while at Disney including Springtime, Hell's Bells, and Arctic Antics. His animation for The Skeleton Dance (1929) was, and still is, remarkable for its realistically drawn human skeleton characters and contained many great visual gags. 

The complex animation in The Skeleton Dance holds up remarkably well.

Ub was great at creating dramatic lighting.

After 1930 however, Ub had a major falling out with Disney. Disney felt that Ub was not welling enough to allow him to retime Ub's work nor would Ub allow other artists to draw in-betweens for his animation. On the other hand, Ub felt overburdened with work and felt like he was not getting enough credit for his contributions at Disney's studio. When Pat Powers offered to distribute cartoons made by Iwerks, Iwerks left Disney to establish his own studio. Shortly afterwards, Iwerks attracted attention for creating the first fully color animated short, Fiddlesticks, two years before Disney would release the Technicolor cartoon The Flowers and the Trees (1932). For this cartoon, Iwerks created Flip the Frog. In this cartoon and his earlier cartoons, Flip was very much like a more 'realistic' looking frog living in a forest (well, for a funny animal anyway). Later on, Flip's design would become more abstract and anthropomorphic. His second cartoon, Flying Fists, was also filmed in color, although no surviving color print is known to exist today. Iwerks's remaining Flip cartoons would be filmed in black and white in order to keep down costs.

Originally, Flip was be portrayed as an adult character with happy-go-lucky nature frolicking among other woods animals. In an effort to standout from the Silly Symphony cartoons, Iwerks restructured the style of his series. He began to star Flip in cartoons more akin to the style of Mickey Mouse. He even gave Flip a girlfriend frog (sometimes a cat) similar to that of Minnie Mouse and a mule similar to Horace Horsecollar. Iwerks also moved Flip to a more urban setting, and gave his character a speaking role. While these early Flip the Frog cartoons were technically sound, they lacked in humor and in originality. The only exception to this was The Cuckoo Clock Murder Case (1930) which featured Flip as a detective inspecting a haunted house, only to nearly meet 'Death' itself.

While rather bland, Fiddlesticks is notable for being the first full color cartoon.

Flip later switched to black and white due to budget concerns.

The last half of Flip the Frog's career changed drastically and for the better. In late 1931 starting with The New Car, his design loosened up and became more abstract, his cartoons no longer resembled Disney castoffs, and quite a few of them were genuinely funny. He was shown to be frequently out of work or constantly trying at (and sometimes failing at) starting up some sort of business, in reference to the Great Depression. Other times, Flip was portrayed to be a young boy dealing with school related problems or trying to win the affection of a popular girl (which is kind of weird sense he is a frog, not a human boy!) A wide array of characters began to populate the series, most predominately a mean, old, man-hungry spinster who acted as Flip's boss and Flip's affectionate but troublesome dog. Additionally, Orace the Mull was fleshed out and given a dull-witted and somewhat short-tempered personality, acting as the perfect foil to the more optimistic and curious Flip.

It should also be noted that the cartoons became more risqué. For instance, in The Office Boy (1932), a women unknowingly walks around with a 'private' sign on her backside and in A Chinaman's Chance (1933), Flip inhales opium and becomes intoxicated. This was because Grim Natwick, who formally worked at Fleisher Studios and designed Betty Boop, and other New York animators brought their more 'gritty' style with them upon joining Iwerks's studio. The cartoon also contained a few mild swear words, such as 'damn' and 'hell', as the film censorship board had not been implanted yet.

A model sheet of Flip's newer, more boyish design.

Hey, what are you boys looking at?

Oh wow, don't expect to see this anytime soon in a Disney cartoon kids!

But despite all of the modifications Iwerks made to try and improve his cartoons, Flip was retired in 1933, after his last cartoon Soda Squirt. So what happened to Iwerks's short-lived, 38 episode series? Why did it fail? Part of the reason was, as mentioned before, Flip's earlier cartoons offered audiences nothing new and came across as 'just another unfunny Disney wannabe'. By the time Flip began to star in more innovative shorts, audiences had likely already moved on. Also, the market had become oversaturated with cartoon animal characters (such as Felix the Cat, Krazy Kat, Cubby Bear, Mickey Mouse, Bimbo, etc) by the time the Flip cartoons came into full swing. Flip was also abandoned just before 1934 when the Hays Box-Office Code was implanted. This implies that perhaps Iwerks was worried that the code would censor some of his show's more bawdy humor and, thus, he abandoned it altogether.  It should also be noted that Ub Iwerks was painfully shy, and likely lacked the skills to advertise himself as well as Walt Disney, a born salesman. Flip the Frog would not gain further recognition until playing on TV rerun programs in the 1950s-1970s and later video releases. To this day, he remains a rather obscure character, only widely known among animation enthusiasts.

Perhaps these scary dolls made people avoid the series.

Spooks (1931) is often regarded as one of Flip's best cartoons.

After canceling Flip the Frog, Ub Iwerks would have even less successful ventures at his studio. He first created a series about Willie Whopper, centering around a young boy who told outlandish tall tales about his fictionalized adventures. MGM dropped distribution of Iwerks's work and replaced him with Harman and Ising, so Willie was abandoned in 1934 after only 14 cartoons. In a last ditch effort, Iwerks switched over completely to color and got funding from Pat Powers again. Iwerks produced 25 Comicolor Cartoons between 1933 to 1936. The cartoons were typically based of off popular fairy tales or childern's stories. Whereas the series lacked good timing and gags, it was lovingly drafted. Iwerks invented the multiplane camera, built from the parts of an old Chevy automobile, to create a sense of realism and depth. This invention would become vital to creating many iconic scenes in several Disney feature films. Eventually, Iwerks lost finical support and was forced to look for work elsewhere.

The even shorter lived cartoon that replaced Flip.

A typical ComiColor cartoon.

From 1937 to 1939 Iwerks produced two Looney Tunes cartoons staring Porky Pig and Gabby Goat at Warner Brother and did contact work for Columbia Picture's Screen Gyms. He eventually made his way back to Disney. There, he came up with other advances in technology including a matte system, to allow the easy combination of live-action and animation (as seen in The Three Caballeros and Mary Poppins), and the xerox process (first utilized in One Hundred and One Dalmatians). In addition, he contributed to several of DisneyLand's theme park projects. Iwerks also did special effects works for other studios. Most famously, he provided animation and camera work for Alferd Hitchcock's The Birds (1963) for which he was nominated an Academy Award.

Despite having mixed success in his career, there is not doubt that Ub Iwerks was an extremely talented man. His influence is felt everywhere from John K to Osamu Tezuka. Many other artists acknowledge Ub's expertise including Chuck Jones and Walt Disney himself. Someday, hopefully, the greater public will acknowledge the contributions of one of animation's most important figures. 

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Most Iconic (and Beautiful) Animation Movie Posters

Over the years, collecting film posters has become an increasingly popular hobby. Original printings for certain posters of famous movies can go for hundreds or even thousands of dollars. (In 2005, an original poster for Metropolis [1927]) broke all records by selling for $690,000 to... Leonardo DiCaprio!?) Prior to the 1990s, most posters and flyers were illustrated by hand. Today, posters are primarily made in Photoshop or similarly altered from movie stills or existing pictures, unless, of course, they are for animated films.

Inspired by similar lists on the internet, here are 25 of the most intriguing posters for famous animated films from over the years in chronological order. (Note: All posters listed here are from the original film release, not reissues, except for the Alice in Wonderland one. Foreign release posters may be listed, however. Also, the quality of the poster does not always reflect the quality of the film itself.)

1. Snow White (1937)

Although not the first animated feature ever made, Snow White was certainly the earliest cartoon film to reach international success. It was the also one of the earliest animated films to feature sound and the first to be released in full color. It continues to be a pop-culture icon today, and established the 'fairytale formula' that many Disney films still follow. Even before Snow White was released, Walt's name was already huge. How many other posters can get away with the tagline, "His first feature length production" ?   

2. Bambi (1942)

This lovely Italian poster is far more interesting than the typical over-glossy, saturated box art that Americans audiences have become so accustomed to seeing. Bambi was the most complexly animated film of its time and required a far greater attention to detail than any other Disney production before it. Live animals were even brought in to the studio to allow for more life-like drawings and a sense of realism. Because of this and the fact that that Bambi took the risk of killing off the protagonist's mother, it was reputably the film that Walt was most proud of. 

3. Alice in Wonderland (1951)

Despite popular belief, Lewis Carroll's story was never supposed to be about drug use. (This mindset did not arise until, surprise, the counterculture movement of the late 1960s.) Ironically, this wonderfully colorful and 'trippy' poster seems to suggest it might though. Alice was one of Walt Disney's favorite children's books. He had long tried to make a film of it before, but did not get the chance until later into his career. Interestingly enough, Alice in Wonderland fared poorly when first released. Critics dismissed it for being too Americanized and it did modestly at the box office. Today, it is regarded as a classic due to its surreal and inspired imagery and art direction by Mary Blair

4. Watership Down (1978)

Watership Down is about as similar to a Disney film as Psycho is to Wizard of Oz. It remains a testament that just because something is animated, it is not necessarily for children. This flyer, depicting a rabbit caught in a snare, is made immortally haunting by the quote from the folktale of El-ahrairah. Watership Down can be best described as a allegorical epic dealing with themes such as tyranny, governmental corruption, and the violation of individual rights. (Yes, and it also happens to be about rabbits.) It remains a landmark in British film and is considered to be one of the greatest cartoons ever made.

5. Lupin the Third: The Castle of Cagliostro (1978) 

Even the most causal anime fan is aware of the works of the great Hayao Miyazaki, who is as just as famous as Disney or Pixar to those in the animation field. After years of working in television, Miyazaki released The Castle of Cagliostro, the first film he ever directed. Even though it is based off a popular franchise, Cagliostro manages to be very entertaining and is widely regarded as one of the best adventure films to ever be produced, receiving praise from the likes of Steven Spielberg and John Lasseter. This poster is hilariously nutty. It looks like something made for a Where's Waldo? book. Several things going on in the background, like a topless lady floating away in a bathtub, don't even happen in the movie!

6. The Lord of the Rings (1978)

First off, this movie is terrible. It's too bad that the poster was a lot cooler than the movie was itself! But the animated version of Lord of the Rings, for all of its shoddy animation and its poor adaptation of JR Tolkien's novels, remains an interesting piece of film history. Directed by Ralph Bashki, infamous for creating the first X-rated cartoon film Fritz the Cat (1972), this version of LOTR represented the growing field of animators who left the studio system to make films of their own. Many of the artists in the 1970s and 1980s in particular, were growing tired of the regime of Saturday mourning, uh... morning, cartoons being cheaply produced and sanitized for young childern.  

7. The Secret of NIMH (1982)

What an appropriately dark yet intriguing poster for the film debut of Don Bluth. The Secret of NIMH was created by Bluth and a small group of other frustrated ex-Disney animators. It was the first animated film since the late 1950s to have such complex and beautiful animation and featured a somewhat darker and more mature storyline for family audiences to boot. Although NIMH still remains overlooked by many average film goers, it was very important for preserving and reviving interest in creating fine animated features. Competition from Bluth's later films would force larger studios, like Disney, to pull their act together at by the end of the 1980s

8. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

Nausicaa is another example of an intelligent film aimed for a somewhat older audience than what most American cartoons are accustomed to. Based of the first third of Miyazaki's epic manga of the same name, it is about a princess living in a post-apocalyptic world were people are constantly fighting amongst themselves and with the forces of nature. Nausicaa was so successful it allowed for the establishment of Studio Ghibli, now world famous for its high quality anime films. This poster is highly valued among avid collectors, as it was drawn by Miyazaki himself in vivid watercolors.   

9. Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986)

Speaking of Studio Ghibli, the first film to be released by the studio was Laputa: Castle in Sky. Loosely based off his TV series Future Boy Conan, Miyazaki directed a wonderfully imaginative steam-punk style fantasy about a girl with a mysterious crystal necklace being pursued by the military and a gang of air pirates. Although not initially a hit, Laputa has become a beloved film ever since Miyazaki grudgingly gave into merchandising his characters after the release of Kiki's Delivery Service (1989). The best thing about this poster? Its usage of perspective and complimentary colors. 

10. Akira (1988)

Akira is sometimes considered to be the first modern anime by certain people, but this is common misconception by western fans. (The first, in fact, was Horus: Prince of the Sun made twenty years earlier.) Akira was, however, the first mature anime to be widely successful with American audiences (and the first major anime to gain widespread attention overseas since the late 1960s- early 1970s). A very violent and unsettling film set in the dystopian future of Tokyo, Akira was sober warning about motorcycle gang violence common in Japan during the time and government funded research. Even the simple style of the poster comes off as eerie. It focuses on Kaneda's motorcycle, a symbol of status and power. The use of the color red and shades of black and grey emphasize that this is certainly not a cute cartoon to put in front of your kid as a babysitter.

11. My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

The polar opposite of Akira, My Neighbor Totoro has charmed audiences worldwide since its release. It is a family movie that it is truly great for any age, as it does not belittle the intelligence of its audience. This poster is rather unusual. At first glance, it looks exactly like the iconic scene from the movie were sisters Satsuki and Mei wait with Totoro at the bus stop until their father comes home from work. But their is only one girl on the poster, resembling a cross between the two sisters. This was because Totoro was originally going to about one girl. The idea of having the film be about two sisters did not arise until later into production.   

12. Grave of Fireflies (1988)

Believe it or not, Grave of Fireflies was released as a double bill with My Neighbor Totoro. Grave is one of the saddest, but perhaps one of the most important films ever made. Its plot, revolving around two Japanese childern who starve during WWII, has often been compared to that of Schindler's List (1993). This poster does an excellent job of reflecting the themes of Isao Takahada's film. The way the children stare back at you and menacing shadow of the bomber plane bring up the question, "When is war necessary, and at what cost?"

13. The Little Mermaid (1989)

The Little Mermaid helped Disney recover from its financial and creative hiatus. Although the movie took several liberties from the original fairytale by Hans Christian Anderson, it continues to be an audience favorite. (Then again, can you imagine how people would react to Disney releasing a version close to the dark original with suicide and all?) Unlike this ugly and somewhat controversial poster, the flyer depicted here is quite nice. The simplicity and primary use of shades of blue of the image hint at Ariel's sense of longing. 

14. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1992)

Although The Nightmare Before Christmas is commonly misattributed to Tim Burton, it was actually directed by Henry Selick (the man behind James and the Giant Peach [1996] and Coraline [2009]). Nightmare was produced and co-written by Burton, however. At any rate, the film received lukewarm reception when first released, perhaps due to its unorthodox style for an American cartoon. But a cult following of the Nightmare grew, and it has been well received ever since then. This poster, thus, has become buried into many people's minds. Its opposing color scheme and twisted imagery make it particularly memorable. 

15. Aladdin (1992)

Aladdin is a very fun and goofy film. In some ways, it seems more like a Warner Bros. production than a Disney cartoon, which may explain why Chuck Jones considered it to be 'one of the funniest films ever made.' This makes Aladdin's original poster all the more curious. The poster has very simple, but appealing style to it and has a more serious feel about it. Perhaps this was because Disney decided to design it as 'Oscar bait' to appeal to the Academy after Beauty and the Beast (1991) was nominated for best feature? The Genie, arguably Aladdin's most memorable character, is not even on the poster. This might be because Robin Williams did not want his image to be overexploited by Disney. However, Disney would later break their agreement with Williams stating that his portrayal of Genie would not take up more than 25% of adverting space. 

16. Toy Story (1995)

The original Toy Story broke several records upon its release. It was the first fully CGI film to ever be released and was an example of the growing number of successful Non-Disney animated films. John Lasseter wisely made the decision to have the film star inanimate objects in order to avoid the issue of the uncanny valley, which happened previously in the Pixar short Tin Toy (1988). The poster depicted here is good example of how to use perspective for dramatic effect. 

17. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)

Alongside The Black Cauldron (1985), this film has become sort of the 'black sheep' of Disney movies. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is certainly not a perfect film, but it should be acknowledged for its effort to go outside of Disney's comfort zone. How many other G-rated films deal with issues such as corruption in the church, infanticide, lust, and social injustice? This appropriately somewhat solemn and lovingly illustrated poster was created by John Alvin. He was well known for also making flyer art for other Disney Renaissance films, The Gremlins, Alien, ET, and Blade Runner, just to name a few.

18. Princess Mononoke (1997)

The spiritual successor to Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Princess Mononoke was the first Studio Ghibli film to become widely available outside of Japan in an unaltered format. (Nausicaa had the unfortunate experience of being horrendously dubbed and having its length cut by half an hour to make it 'more marketable' to US audiences during the 1980s.) Mononoke's complex plot avoids many problems associated with other environmentally themed films such as Pocahontas and Avatar.  Neither side of the argument (San, the girl raised by wolves, and Lady Eboshi of Iron Town) is shown to be more right or wrong than the other. The protagonist Ashitaka and the audience is left torn between both parties. The lose of innocence and unclear answer to how humans and nature can coexist peacefully are at the heart of this film. The poster, with San angrily glaring at anyone happening to be passing by, also features the immortal quote "Ikiro!" ("We must try to live."), referencing back to Miyazaki's earlier films and own philosophy. 

19. Perfect Blue (1997)

Satoshi Kon was a very talented anime director known for his complex and confusing films that dealt with insanity, betrayal, and social injustice. His first, and perhaps most adult, film was Perfect Blue, about a retired pop-star who begins to lose her sense of reality as she is stalked by an over obsessive fan. It should be noted that this film has won wide spread acclaim, including from Terry Gilman. Perfect Blue also was a huge influence on the direction of Black Swan (2010) and both have very similar plot lines. So much so, in fact, that some question as to why director Darren Aronofsky bought rights to the film. This poster was made for French audiences. It really evokes the bizarreness of the film and the psychological horror that Mima faces. It refers to the scene where Mima hallucinates that someday broke into her home and her fish have all died.

20. The Prince of Egypt (1998)

Before switching entirely over to CGI, Dreamworks released several traditionally animated movies during the late 1990s and early 2000s. The best of these films was The Prince of Egypt. Although the film has been compared to The Ten Commandments (1956), it is uniquely its own and really should be seen by anyone who wants to enjoy a modern example of a large scale epic. This promo's use of heavy contrast and warm hues seem to hint that some great change is about to come. 

21. The Iron Giant (1999) 

The Iron Giant was one of those films that was ahead of its time. Directed by the now famous Brad Bird, The Iron Giant is about a smart but misfit boy, Hogarth, who happens to strike up a friendship with a large amnesiac robot that fell to Earth. Since the film is set during the Cold War, Hogarth must hide his new and unusual friend who is misunderstood by the paranoid world around him. The Iron Giant failed at the box office when first released, perhaps due to poor marketing or its unconventional plot, but has sense gone on to become a modern classic. Cartoon Network even used to play the film regularly as a Thanksgiving tradition. The simple silhouette style of this poster is really striking. The only color part of the giant is his large yellow eyes, which appear to be almost sad or lonely.    

22. Tokyo Godfathers (2003)

Tokyo Godfathers was the second to last film produced by the late Satoshi Kon and the most 'realistic' of his works. This US poster introduces the audience to the movie's rather unusual protagonists (a transvestite, runaway girl, and an alcoholic) all of whom are homeless. When the three happen to come across a baby in the dumpster on Christmas Eve, they decide that they must return her to her mother. This results in a sometimes hilarious, and sometimes rather sad or touching, journey of self-discovery for the protagonists as they uncover each other's pasts and meet many interesting people along the way. The warm colors of this poster sort of evoke that of Christmas movie, but the focus of the poster poster clearly remains on the ragtag protagonists. The baby is also depicted with a sort of glow around her, suggesting the 'miracles' she brings into the protagonists lives.  

23. Ratatouille (2007)

Another excellent film by the talented Brad Bird, this poster for Ratatouille really shows how far computer technology has come from making Toy Story over ten years prior. This poster has been used for many international promotions. (A clear copy of the English version is unavailable, so we will make do with this one.) The bright color scheme and realistic carrot are enough to make audiences hungry just by looking at it. Remy seems to be enjoying the smell of the food, but perhaps a bit too much. It almost looks like he is in love with the carrot! 

24. Waltz with Bashir (2008)

Waltz with Bashir is one of the most important and harrowing films to come from an indie studio recently. Filmed using a technique similar to rotoscoping, it deals with a Israeli man's post dramatic stress disorder following the Lebanon War. This poster's minimalist and bleak style are perfectly appropriate. The protagonist of this documentary, Ari Folman, seems to be desperately staring out into space as he searches for answers and tries to recollect his disturbing memories of war. 

25. The Secret World of Arrietty (2010) 

Studio Ghibli just seems to have a thing for making lovely promotional artwork. This is technically Arriety's French poster, but it is partially identical to the original Japanese film. (For some reason, the internet seems to be lacking a clear scan of the original poster.) It is a far cry from the poster designed for American audiences, which seems to suffer from over saturation and stiff poses. (Sho's eyes and disembodied head are also sort of creepy...) Very few films evoke such a grand sense of scale and attention to small detail as Arriety does, which is only fitting since the titular character is only a couple inches high.

Monday, March 18, 2013

How TV Nearly Killed Cartoons (Animation of the 1970s-80s)

If you consider the above actually good, your nostalgia filter needs desperate cleaning.

Many people have a hard time recalling animated television series from the 1970s to the earlier half of the 1980s and the ones they do mostly are for a bad reason. Limited animation had been used for about ten years prior to the invention of television, but was created for artistic purposes not for budget reasons. UPA, as mentioned earlier on this blog, was a pioneer in the field. Some of the studio's most famous creations include Mr. Magoo, Gerald McBoing Boing, and the feature length film Gay Purr-ee. Other studios began to catch on to the popularity of limited animation and companies such as Hannah Barbara began to realize that the technique could also be used to save money. By the time television had become commonplace, animated series turned to limited techniques in order to deal with smaller budgets and produce large numbers of episodes. American cartoons also became increasingly more 'kid friendly' to appease moral watchdogs and sensitive parents. By the late 1960s, theatrical cartoons were no more.   

Lack of budget (and creativity) resulted in many shortcuts. 

Early on animation on television was certainly aimed for the family crowd, but was of decent quality. Jay Ward is fondly remembered for bringing TV its first cartoon, Crusader Rabbit, in 1949 and for The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show (1959-1964). His cartoons had simple yet appealing character designs, good voice acting, and had humor both for children and adults alike. Hannah Barbera's earlier cartoons also were fairly enjoyable for a period of time. Huckleberry Hound and Yogi Bear became household names and The Flintstones (1960-1966) was the first primetime cartoon and had a sizable older fan base, paving way for shows such as The Simpsons three decades later. Another noteworthy cartoon was Beany and Cecil (1962-1969) by ex-Warner Bros animator Bob Clampett, which was well known for its crazy humor, slapstick, and puns.

Crusader Rabbit, the first cartoon to be made for TV.

Jay Ward and Hannah Barbera made excellent cartoons early on. 

Sadly, this would not last. As the temptation of milling out more and more cartoons at lower and lower production costs loomed, the quality of TV animation plummeted drastically. This made the business executives very happy and appeased more conservative groups wanting safe, sanitized cartoons for their children. And since young children will watch anything put in front of their faces, they did not complain about the low quality of these new cartoons and many weren't even exposed to older theatrical animated series or TV series to compare them to. (Unless, in some circumstances, these older programs were censored.) The regime of Saturday morning cartoons and educational programs were demanded by groups such as Action for Children's Television. Thus, public opinion changed to treating animation as 'kid's stuff' an attitude that still persists to a certain degree today. Filmation, Hannah Barbera, Ruby-Spears, and other companies regurgitated Scooby-Doo knock-offs and stale storylines at an astounding rate. The dismay of unhappy animators and certain film critics were largely ignored.

This was a great blow to many artists in the medium who had to work on cheap products in order to stay competitive. The influential cartoons of Warner Brothers, MGM, UPA, and other former powerhouses had gone by the wayside. Disney was struggling just to stay alive at a certain point and was even at danger of closing a few times. (Which is almost unimaginable today considering how much of a monopoly the studio has become!) Walt had died, many of Disney's older animators had left or retired, and traditional animation at the studio had become very expense. (This was due to Sleeping Beauty not earning back its cost at the box-office, forcing Disney to rely heavily on xerography tracing and recycling animation from its previous films.) The result of these unfortunate studio woes resulted in an extreme dearth of creativity. Mediocre or just plain terrible TV shows dominated, including the likes of The Archie Show (1968-1970), The Groovie Goolies (1970), The Jackson 5ive (1971-1973), Super Friends (1973-1985), and Jabberjaw (1976-1978).

The animators were so lazy, they didn't even bother to color in the eyes.

One word: gaudy. 

Let's pitch a Scooby-Doo clone, but with a a band! Brilliant, the kids will never notice!

The quality of American television animation continued to decline into the 1980s due to over-excessive merchandising. Many 'popular' cartoons of the era were little more than product commercials solely created to get parents to buy toys for the their children. Cartoons following this trend included Transformers, My Little Pony, Care Bears, He-man, Jem, and even a show about a rubik's cube. Super Hero cartoons sanitized for younger audiences, such as, The New Adventures of Batman (1977) and Spider-Friends (1981-1983), were also common at the time. Speaking of sanitized, it is rather hilarious that several R-rated movies were adapted into Saturday morning cartoons. Parents were actually ok with their childern watching pc versions of Rambo and Robo-cob?! Video game based shows also plagued the 80's, the most notorious being The Super Mario Bros Super Show and The Legend of Zelda (both 1989). 

Umm, wow. How was this even made? It's so bluntly racist!

Not another Care Bears clone!

Hannah Montana + Barbie + KISS = Jem 

Warning: Not the Batman your teenage son wants for Christmas. 

Because every kid wants to watch a cartoon about a toy box.

In other countries, the state of animation was not so dire. In Europe, most of the budget went to making the occasional high profile film, such as The Yellow Submarine (UK, 1968), Watership Down ( UK, 1978), or The King and the Mockingbird (France, 1980). Russia primarily focused on making short films both for adults and childern, such as Hedgehog in the Fog (1975), Firing Range (Polygon) (1978), and The Tree and the Cat (1983). Only very occasionally were TV series made, as most countries found it hard to compete with America's excessive output of cheap cartoons. Arguably, the most successful series outside the USA were Danger Mouse (UK, 1981) and Nu Pogodi! (Just You Wait!) (Russia, 1969-2006).  The only country that churned out TV animation rivaling that of America was Japan.

It is interesting to contrast the state of American animation to Japan. Yes their were forgettable, more merchandise-driven based franchise shows such as Speed Racer (1966-1968), Science Ninja Team Gatchaman (1972-1980), and Getter Robo (1974-1975). However, there were also more intellectual and creative shows created at time due to the anime revolution of the late 1960s as a result of social unrest and artistic rebellion. (Two of the most prominent works in the 1960s responsible for this were Horus: Prince of the Sun and The Vampires, as mentioned earlier on this blog.) Before the revolution, anime was a lot like 'typical' American films in the vein of Disney. Princess Knight (1965) and The Wonderful World of Puss in Boots (1969) are examples of the 'old hat' of anime.

Early anime was a lot like Disney.

Most Americans tend to think that 1970s anime was 'just giant robots' because mecha was the primary genre that made it overseas to the USA.

Some of the most fondly remembered anime series came out the 1970s-1980s, a period often considered a 'golden era' for animation in Japan. Lupin III no doubt shocked audiences when it first appeared on TV in 1971. It was the first truly 'adult' anime brimming with black humor and sexual innuendos. Although somewhat tame by today's standards, the show caused enough controversy when it originally aired that Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahada (whom you may have heard of) were brought in to make the show a bit more family friendly and focus more on slapstick comedy. Initially, Lupin flopped, but quickly attained cult status. It became successful enough to spawn three other series and several movies and TV specials. Since then, Lupin and his criminal hijinks have become as familiar to Japanese audiences as Bugs Bunny is to Americans.

Miyazaki and Takahada would later move on to Nippon Animation. There Takahada directed several very influential anime series based off classic childern's novels, including Heidi, Girl of the Alps (1974) and Anne of the Green Gabbles (1979). Miyazaki made his big break with Future Boy Conan (1978) before he and Takahada established Studio Ghibli and the rest is history. Another notable Nippon anime was Dog of Flanders (1975), a very bleak but beautiful series by Yoshio Kuroda.

Popular genres of the time were sports dramas, such as Ashita No Joe (1970), and fantasy space operas. Several sci-fi manga by Leiji Matsumoto were adapted to TV including Space Battleship Yamato (1974) and Galaxy Express 999 (1978). The historical drama, Rose of Versailles (1979), was about a women raised as a man during the class clash of the French Revolution. It was notable for taking the risk of introducing (possibly) bisexual characters to popular anime and for its tragic ending. Anime legend Osamu Tezuka also managed to finally remake two of his most beloved series, Astro Boy and Jungle Emperor Leo (Kimba the White Lion) with a larger budget and without the constraint of censorship.

Lupin III, the first anime series for a more adult audience.

Sport dramas, such as Ashita no Joe, are exceedingly popular in Japan.

Galaxy Express 999, a popular series dealing with death, immortality, and betrayal. 

The Dog of Flanders: it will make you cry.

Future Boy Conan is still considered to be one of the greatest cartoon series ever.

Towards the end of the 1980s, things began to change again for American animation, but fortunately for the better. After realizing that the competition from Don Bluth and other independent animators were taking away from their market, Disney realized it had to shape up in order to survive. Thus the company began vigorously training a new crop animators and released Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) and The Little Mermaid (1989), starting a successful period during the 1990s of revival known as the Animation Renaissance. Other companies, like Warner Brothers and Hannah Barbera (now Cartoon Network), began to make successful cartoons again, such as The Animaniacs (1993-1998) and The Iron Giant (1999). Newer studios such as Nickelodeon, Dreamworks, and most notably, Pixar, were also met with great success during this era. Many of them continue to be important to the animation industry today.

Everyone's reaction to this movie: 'Disney is alive?! :D" & "Thank God we don't have to put up with cartoons like Fangface anymore!"