Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Animation Before Hollywood (1900 - 1918)

How did the industry begin?

Animation has become such a huge industry in recent years, that it can be a bit baffling to look back at the medium's extensive history. Some of the earliest cartoon films date back to the dawn of cinema itself. Arguably, the first significant animated short was 'The Enchanted Drawing' (1990). Directed by J. Stuart Blackton for Edison Studios, it was little more than a trick film, involving a man drawing a picture to life on a canvas and interacting with it. Audiences became entranced with the notion that drawings could be brought to life on screen, and Blackton followed up his success with the slightly more sophisticated short, 'Humorous Phases of Funny Faces' (1906). Likewise overseas in France, Emile Cohl, partially inspired by Georges Melies, began producing several experimental films of his own, most notably Fantasmagorie (1908). Fantasmagorie, although seemingly crude by today measures, was the first animated film to involve a wider range of character movement and relied significantly less on live-action footage than Blackton's films.

'Humorous Phases of Funny Faces' (1906) is one of the oldest surviving pieces of animation.  

However, the one person who made the biggest impact of all these early innovators, was, without a doubt, Winsor McCay. McCay was a very talented comic strip artist and political cartoonist. Due to all of the experience he had gained drawing a wide variety of subjects for his strips Little Nemo in Slumberland (1905-1923) and The Dream of the Rabbit Fiend (1904-1925), McCay's artistic skill surpassed all other animators of his day, and perhaps even most of them today. McCay's most memorable short films were: 'Little Nemo' (1911), which included a memorable hand-colored sequence, 'Gertie the Dinosaur' (1914), his most famous work, and 'The Sinking of the Lusitania' (1918), which was his first major film to utilize cels and is largely considered his opus magnum.

A page from the comic strip Little Nemo.

A segment from McCay's animated version of Little Nemo.

McCay's expertise made animation more popular than ever before and thus caught the eye of the newly forming Hollywood. However, McCay was a very meticulous worker and a perfectionist. He often drew out his films single handily or only with a very small group of animators. Thus, his films took several months to complete. This was incompatible with the Hollywood work model, so other artists began to adopt cheaper methods and to work in larger groups. It was not until much later, with the artistic evolution within large companies like Disney, that the art of animation would begin to approach the level of sophistication that McCay displayed. McCay himself was dismayed at the scarifies that Hollywood made in order to churn out cartoons more quickly. He was rather dismissive of how many companies began to switch over to less serious subject matter starring funny animal characters.     

Early History of Animation Blogathon Begins!

Hi all. I have been pretty busy recently preparing for exams and writing papers. However, I soon plan to do a bunch of posts relating to the artistic evolution of animation up until the beginning of the Golden Era (meaning primarily American animation up until the late 1930s - early 1940s). In particular, I will be looking at the rise and fall of the use of 'rubber hose' animation in Hollywood and how the style still has some lasting influences today.

Bill Nolan's rubber hose animal drawings. 

I will be covering the following:

1. Animation Before Hollywood (1900 -1918)
2. The Age of Rubber Hose Animation (1919 - mid 1930s)
3. The Decline of Rubber Hose Animation and The Slide Towards Realism (late 1930s - early 1940s)
4. Contemporary Examples / Uses of Rubber Hose

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Point! (Review)

Director: Fred Wolf

Company: Murakami-Wolf Productions, ABC

Year: 1971

Country: USA

What happens when a rock artist decides to tell a childern's story in animated form?

Although it is largely forgotten by the general public, The Point! holds an interesting place in animation history. The television movie premiered as part of the ABC Movie of the Week lineup which ran from 1969 to 1976, making The Point! the first U.S. animated special to air during prime time. The animation was provided by Jimmy Murakami and Fred Wolf. Murakami would later become known for his adaptions of the British childern's books The Snowman (1982) and When the Wind Blows (1986). Wolf is best remembered for animating the famous Tootsie Pop 'How Many Lick's' commercials, and his work on various TV series and specials (such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Ducktales). The Point! itself is based off of a childern's story conceived by the folk rock artist Harry Nilsson, who performed such hits as "Everybody's Talkin'", "Without You", and "Coconut". Nilsson decided to write The Point! and compose music to it after he was inspired by a drug trip, as he describes it below.   

"I was on acid and I looked at the trees and I realized that they all came to points, and the little branches came to points, and the houses came to point. I thought, "Oh! Everything has a point, and if it doesn't, then there's a point to it."

Yep, now I'm certain that I am watching a cartoon made in the early '70s.

The film's plot is fairly simple. The Point! is told as a frame story when a father (first voiced by Dustin Hoffman, and later Ringo Star in subsequent releases) decides to read his son a book in order to detach the boy from the TV set. The father then acts as the narrator for the rest of the film. Our hero of The Point! ironically is born 'pointless.' Unlike all of the other residents of The Land of Point, Oblio is born without a triangular shaped head. Oblio's head is perfectly round. To try to get him to fit in, Oblio's parents give their son a pointed hat to wear. Oblio is also given a pet dog, named Arrow, to keep him company. Oblio is generally liked and accepted by his peers. But one day, Oblio angers the greedy Count's son after he beats him in a game of triangle toss. The Count thus banishes Oblio to the Pointless Forest. Lost in the forest, Oblio and Arrow come to learn that the area's seemingly odd inhabitants do have points to their behavior after all, even if they are not at first apparent. Oblio then realizes that being different is not something to be ashamed of or to hide, and that change can, in fact, be beneficial to society.  

Likewise, the animation itself is not very complex and generally suits The Point! fairly well. The style of The Point! resembles childern's drawings. (It also sports some bizarre imagery, including naked, fat, bouncing ladies. Yes, you heard that right.) While watching The Point! one can not help to think of The Yellow Submarine (1968). The characters don't move much in certain places of the film. Being a TV production, The Point!'s age definitely shows. The awkward movements and splotchy cell coloring in this film can come off as a bit unsightly. It could be due to the age of the film's print, but the color saturation is very bright at times. The character designs are quirky, in their own charming sort of way. Many of The Point!'s inhabitants look like they would be right at home in shows such as Phineas and FerbAdventure Time, or some of Nickelodeon's recent cartoon output.

The Pointless Forest, not so 'pointless' after all.

Because the film was conceived around Nilsson's musical narrative, most of The Point!'s score is pretty good. Of course in order to enjoy the music, you have to be a fan of the country-rock ballads popular during the late 1960s - early 1970s. The music segments allow for the animation to go off in some rather experimental and odd directions (most notably the psychedelic sequence for the song, "Are You Sleeping?", which is only interconnected to the plot via a dream Oblio has). The movie's most successful song, no doubt, was "Me and My Arrow", which went on to become something of a breakaway hit. (It was even referenced in a recent The Simpsons episode, "To Cur With Love", about Homer's childhood pet dog.) However, not all of The Point!'s songs are as memorable. "Think About Your Troubles" was a miss. It's a rather weird and monotonous number about dying, bodies decomposing, and the food chain. The Lion King certainly covered such themes about birth and death in the nature song, "The Circle of Life", much more effectively.

Nilsson's best known song made for this production is "Me and My Arrow." 

The message of the movie is an important one being about accepting diversity, following one's own intention, and realizing that everyone in society has a unique role to play. However, the execution of the way in which the story is told is where this film suffers the most. The Point! drags on for too long. Because the film's story is relatively simple and to the point (no pun intended), The Point! would work far better if it only ran half an hour to forty-five minutes versus an hour and ten minutes in length. Because the animation was made on a tighter budget, much of the unnecessary time used up is spent listening to extra lines of dialogue or on the film's song sequences. This time could have been used to flesh out some of the characters more. Or if the film was shorter, the animation itself could have likely been made on a higher budget.

In the end, The Point! while an interesting experiment, turns out to be a fairly average viewing experience. The Point! occupies an odd niche. It's a become something of a cult film given its counterculture influences, music by Harry Nilsson, and unique art style. But like certain cult films, The Point! has some definite problems in terms of its narrative flow and ability to hold its audience's attention. It's a bit of a shame because you can see that there was some thought put into this production, but it just doesn't quite deliver. Almost but not quite.

Oblio gets the point, literally.  

Rating: 3/5

Monday, May 20, 2013

Early Versions of Famous Cartoon Characters (Disney Edition)

Designing a memorable and believable cartoon personality takes a lot of work and time. Unlike actors, each design for a character must be drawn up and invented on the spot. It is quite easy to overlook all this, as a well defined characters just seem so natural on screen. Listed below is a small glimpse at the formation of several Disney icons from over the years. (For those of you who enjoyed this article, I highly suggest you visit the website the 50 Most Influential Disney Animators.)

1. Snow White

Grim Natwick's first and finalized drawings of Snow White.

At first look, this early sketch of the heroine of Disney's first animated feature looks an awful lot like Betty Boop. This was because Snow White was designed and animated by Grim Natwick, a long time employ and animator for Fleisher Studios. Natwick would later refine Snow White, giving her a more realistic appearance needed for the film.

Besides animating Snow White and Betty Boop, Natwick also contributed to several other projects. He redesigned Woody Wood Pecker for Walter Lantz, animated Mickey Mouse in Fantasia, and helped with Robin William's ill-fated The Thief and the Cobbler, just to name a few. Natwick's contributions can not be understated. Since 2010 there has been a animation festival named after him, which is held an annually in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin.

2. Jiminy Cricket

Early, more cricket-like sketches of Jiminy by Kimball.

Pinocchio (1940) was the second Disney feature film after Snow White and thus a lot of anticipation surrounded the project. Fortunately, the film proved to be just as, if not even more memorable than its preceder. This was due to its vastly improved animation, more complex plot, and fuller characters. Arguably, Jiminy Cricket is the best example of the later. The cricket originally appeared briefly in the story that the film was based off of, giving advice to Pinocchio only to be squashed. (Although, the cricket did appear later as a ghost.) Walt Disney saw potential in the character and decided to expand the his role and for him to act as Pinocchio's conscience.

Ward Kimball was given the job of designing Jiminy in order to make the cricket more appealing (and as sort of an apology from Walt for cutting a scene that Kimball animated for Snow White). Kimball, who would later become one of the most famous and respected animators who ever lived, found it very difficult to make such an 'ugly insect' cute. Kimball ended up settling with a character that hardly even looked like a real cricket, and more like a small man. Never the less, this did not matter. Kimball's excellent animation of the cricket, the character's appealing design, and portrayal by Cliff Edwards made Jiminy an unforgettable Disney icon.  

3. Aurora 

Early sketches of Aurora based off of Audrey Hepburn by Tom Oreb.   

Mark Davis's finalized look for the character.

To many, Sleeping Beauty (1959) represents the pinnacle of hand drawn animation during the Golden Era at Disney. It had complex, varied animation and an uniquely inspired angular style, blending modernism with Medieval paintings (which was largely due to the genius of the background artist, Eyvind Earle). However, the film was not very well received when it first released. Although Sleeping Beauty was nominated an Academy Award for its score, the film drastically underperformed at the box office (only earning about $7.7 million for its six million production costs!) and the critics found it to be lacking in character development (To be fair, Disney leads, up until fairly recently, have generally been less interesting than the supporting cast.) Due to these factors, Walt would switch completely over to the Xerox process developed by Ub Iwerks to keep costs down for the rest of his films, and Disney would not make another fairytale feature again until The Little Mermaid in 1989.

The development of the princess Aurora (from the Latin word for "dawn", the same name used in Tchaikovsky's ballet) helps make sense of some of the difficulties Disney's ambitious, but troubled film. The original drawings for Aurora by Tom Oreb were heavily modeled off of Audrey Hepburn, who was at the height of her popularity at the time. Marc Davis, who had experience previously animating Cinderella and also animated Maleficent for Sleeping Beauty, modified Oreb's original idea so that Aurora could better fit in with Earle's stylized backgrounds, while still maintaing her willowy frame. Marc Davis's wife, Alice, designed Aurora's final costume and live action footage of actress Helene Stanley was used for reference purposes. Visually Aurora worked well in her film, but she had very little personality. Then again, Aurora is asleep for the vast majority of the film, only having screen time for about eighteen minutes, so this is not too surprising.

4. Cruella De Vil 

Cruella as she appears in the original book. Yes, there was a book.

Sexy Cruella?!

Now we are getting a bit closer.

Cruella in action, as we know her today. 

Arguably one of Disney's most famous villains, Cruella De Vil was another crowning achivement of Marc Davis's Career.  No doubt, her presence and the modern setting of 101 Dalmatians (not to mention the puppies themselves), helped the film become a major success. This was especially relieving to the Disney staff after what had happened with Sleeping Beauty. Cruella Devil shows Marc Davis's skill at creating diverse and memorable personalities. Although Cruella is a villain like Maleficent, she is very different. Cruella is far more dramatic, flamboyant, vain, and in-your-face, whereas Maleficent is far more composed, cruel, and reserved. Cruella is so caricatured that she is very easy to laugh at, but also can come of as frightening if needed. And of course, the more nasty and ugly Cruella is, all the more cute and innocent the dalmatian puppies seem. Looking at the evolution of Cruella De Vil's character, it is certainly interesting to see how her design goes from being a cold and fashionable women, to being outright haggard and crazy! 

"Cruella De Vil. Cruella De Vil. Just try to get this out of your head, you never will." 

5. Prince John

Ollie Johnston's tiger Prince John.

Early drawing of the cast by Ken Anderson.

Prince John doing what he does best.

Robin Hood, for better or for worse, was the first Disney film to not be approved by Walt (and the second to be produced without him, after The Aristocats), as he had died seven years earlier in 1966. Granted Walt did influence the production of the film by the decision of making a film related to, but not directly about the folk character Reynard the Fox (due to Walt finding Reynard too cruel to be likable). Reception for Robin Hood was initially mixed and the animation itself was made on a tight budget (resulting in retracing of several scenes from earlier Disney films) Today, the film has garnered a better reputation for its brand of humor and excellent performance of Prince John by Peter Ustinov.

Like in the Reynard tales, Disney's fox version of Robin Hood faces off against an inept ruler who happens to be a lion. Ollie Johnston originally planed for John to be a tiger, but his since his brother was King Richard 'the lion hearted', the idea was dropped. Prince John isn't even depicted with a mane like a healthy adult male lion. This is likely done as a knock on his inefficacy to rule, and his immature behavior. Interestingly enough, the film's climax was going to be different and would have made John somewhat more of a threat. The surviving storyboards, drawn by Ken Anderson, reveal that Prince John actually attempted to stab Robin Hood after he fell down into the moat.

Robin Hood's alternate ending!

6. Gurgi

Milt Kahl's suggestion for Gurgi.

Mel Shaw's apish Gurgi.

Andreas Deja's cleanup model of Gurgi.

The Black Caldron is widely regarded as one of Disney's biggest disappointments. It lacked interesting or relatable characters, scared away leery family audiences, and failed to capture the spirit of the books from which it was based off of. The film was meant to mark a major turn for Disney and was an early attempt of the studio to renew itself (which would not happen successfully until the late '80s with Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and The Little Mermaid.) The Black Caldron holds an interesting place in history however, as it marks many developments that would later be met with better results in Disney's subsequent films. It was the first Disney movie to use computer generated special effects and to receive a PG rating (which was truly a big deal back in the 1980s). The Black Caldron was one of the earliest Disney films to have no direct involvement from the famous Nine Old Men, thus an entirely newly crop of animators used the film as their training ground.

Andreas Deja, who would later become one of Disney's most acclaimed Renaissance era animators (He also has an excellent blog on animation history!), was given his first major assignment for The Dark Caldron. He animated Gurgi, the ever hungry, comedic canine-like creature and sidekick of the film's hero. Deja with some help from senior animator, Milt Kahl, managed to create some truly memorable scenes with this little misfit dog-man, in an otherwise fairly dull movie. From Kahl's original drawings and Mel Shaw's suggestions, Deja took the initial design of Gurgi and refined the character making him 'cuter' and more of his own vision. 

7. Ariel

An early sketch by Dan Haskett.

Another Haskett drawing. It's closer to the current design.

Glen Keane's Ariel, as we know her today.

An animated adaptation for The Little Mermaid had long been on Disney's back burner. But the idea did not catch on until long after Walt's death. Needless to say, the wait to get the story on the screen did not turn out to be a bad thing. The Little Mermaid ushered Disney into its second golden age and broke box office records. The movie required some of the most detailed and expensive animation since Fantasia (1940), and the end of the film was the first to use the CAPS digital coloring system (which was developed alongside Pixar, hinting at the future dominance of CGI in American film.)

The heroine of the film was designed by Disney's most famous living animator, Glen Keane (who left the company about a year ago). Ariel came into being when co-director Ron Clements decided that the character from the original story had to be rewritten to suit the film's audience. Dan Haskett's initial idea for Ariel was then handed over to Glen Keane to refine. Glen Keane apparently based Ariel's looks off of his own wife and the actress Alyssa Milano. Interestingly enough, Ariel was going to be blond, but it was ultimately decided that red would work better to stand out against the film's backgrounds and her green fins. Although the reception of Ariel's personality has been mixed, (some seeing her as a rebellious role model for young girls while others see her as a ditzy, lovestruck, and naive), the character has always been popular with audiences.  

8. Jafar

Thank heavens they didn't settle for this one.

Jafar continues to evolve...

Concept art by Daan Jippes.

Deja shows off Jafar's various expressions.

Directors Ron Clements and John Musker struck gold again with Aladdin (1992), and Andreas Deja also meet great praise for creating Jafar, easily one of Disney's most recognizable Renaissance era villains, alongside Scar (whom Deja also animated). Like all of Aladdin's other characters, Jafar's angular look was inspired by a distinct geometrical shape. (Speaking of angular, the fact that Deja over exaggerated Jafar's long face certainly leant to the character having many funny expressions!) Unlike the rest of the cast, however, Deja chose not to base Jafar of off the caricatures of Al Hirschfeld, in order to create a sense of contrast. Jafar's lean figure and pointed features were more similar in appearance to Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty and Zigzig from The Thief and the Cobbler. (Jafar also bears an uncanny resemblance to the villain Jaffar, played by Conrad Veidt, from the 1940 film The Thief of Baghdad, which was a major influence on Aladdin.)

9. Jane Porter

Siepermann's initial sketches.

Another of Siepermann's drawings.

Ken Duncan's Jane is far less reserved! 

Tarzan (1999) is widely regarded as the last major film of Disney's Renaissance era. While the film's lead was animated by Glen Keane, Tarzan's love interest, Jane, was not interestingly enough. Some of Jane's earliest concept art was provided by the talented and late Harald Siepermann. Ken Duncan, who previously supervised the animation of Thomas from Pocahontas (1995) and Meg from Hercules (1997), was in charge of animating Jane Porter. His female leads are quite distinct from Glen Keane's girls. Their faces are far more angular, their eyes aren't so large, and they are overall more 'cartoony' than Keane's more youthful figures. (Duncan's ladies also seem to be a bit more vocal than Keane's female characters.) Apparently, much of Duncan's visual inspiration comes from studying popular female actresses of the 1940s. Notice how Jane's appearance changes over the span of these drawings from being snobbish / aloof to being more playful and goofy.    

10. Stitch 

Stitch in 1985.

Bulldog Stitch?

Stitch gets a bit cuter.

Stitch's model sheet.

For a Disney film, Lilo and Stitch (2002) was rather unconventional. Chris Sander's movie was not based off of a fairytale or popular childern's book. It was an entirely original concept. Lilo and Stitch was also set in present day, utilized water color backgrounds, and all of the major character designs came from Sanders himself. Stitch himself has a longer history than many people realize. The idea of a mischievous little alien becoming part of a family dates back to 1985, when Sanders attempted to pitch the character as an idea for a picture book. It was later decided for the film to take place in Hawaii because no other animated feature had been set there before. Chris Sanders even voiced Stitch himself. He would later leave Disney following a stint over the feature American Dog (which would eventually become Bolt [2008]), and go on to direct How To Train Your Dragon (2010) and The Croods (2013) for Dreamworks.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Openings & Music to Lupin III: Series 1

Throughout its run, the first Lupin III series had several different theme tunes and unique vocal tracks. Even though this series's music remains less known than the second Lupin III TV show's iconic theme, it still had a very unique country-rock and jazz like quality to it. (As mentioned earlier, it should be Lupin's original score was a major influence on the soundtrack of Cowboy Bebop.) Below are some experts of Lupin the Third scored by Takeo Yamashita.*

1. Original Opening

This theme was used predominantly for the earlier, darker, and grittier episodes directed by Masaaki Osumi. Charlie Koshi provides the vocals in this clip (and the next three), sounding quite a bit like Bob Dylan. The gunfire, car crashes, and numerous explosions throughout really emphasize the action / spy-film like quality of the series (and perhaps act to remind the viewer that Lupin was not originally conceived as a childern's show). It is worthy to note that the footage from this opening actually originated from the ill-fated 1968 pilot film. The second opening which can be viewed here, also used lots of the pilot footage and acted as an introduction to the show's colorful cast.

2. Third Opening

Lupin III's third opening reflects the lightheartedness and madcap capers that would begin to dominate the series after Miyazaki and Takahada took over from Osumi. It has a high energy Latin flavor to it. All of the characters are additionally shown to work together more often, rather than against one another. The animation here is notably smoother here than the excerpts used in the previous themes because it came from the series itself, not the pilot. Miyazaki's redesign for Fujiko can be seen at 0:58. 

3. End Theme

Motorcycles make everything cooler don't they? All joking aside, this end theme is a nice moody piece of Western influenced music with some background whistling in it. The animation is simplistic but suits the bare bones style of the tune. The text on the screen is Italian (most of the videos for Lupin on Youtube are in Italian, because Italians love Lupin.), but the lyrics are in the original Japanese. It's interesting that the series kept this somewhat melancholy sounding song even after it dropped some of its darker themes. 

4. "Lupin, He's A Nice Guy"

This is probably Lupin III's most famous song due to its distinctively early '70s sound and rather unintentionally humorous English lyrics. Basically, it's just Charlie Koshi bragging about Lupin in odd ways. There are some scratches, skips, and sounds from the show mixed into this recording as the original was lost. The song usually played during the series after Lupin successfully pulled off some sort of heist or tricked Inspector Zenigata for the tenth millionth time.  

5. "Scat Theme (Rebirth Version, Fujiko's Theme)"

Several variations of Lupin III's "Scat Theme" exist, but the one shown here is perhaps the best known. Hummed by Kayoko Ishu, this rock-blues piece was primarily used when Fujiko was acting manipulative, troubled, or both. It was used heavily in the earlier half of the series, reflecting its more mature tone and character driven conflicts. The footage in this video clip, syched to the music, mainly uses clips from the 9th episode, so don't watch it if your worried about spoilers. (It's about Fujiko's past.)

* I originally wrote this article on the 7th of last month, to follow up my review for the first Lupin III series. However, it was taken down yesterday for some reason, so I had to repost it.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

A Tribute to Jim Henson

In order to honor the memory of Jim Henson, who will have passed away 23 years ago in a couple of days, here are some highlights chronicling the development of his career. Jim was a major part of my childhood and his work has met great appeal to people of all ages. It is truly a shame that he died so young, at only 53, at such a preventable death. If he were with us still today, who knows what the man would have done. So without further ado, here are ten video clips showcasing the diversity of the world's greatest puppeteer.

Sam and Friends (1955-1961) - Visual Thinking 

Jim Henson's early work was could be quite surreal and have unconventional humor. Initially, Henson was interested in perusing a career in television, not puppetry. He made many short live-action films, most notably Time Piece (1965), which was nominated for an Academy Award. However, Jim turned to using his muppets after his early show, Sam and Friends, attained cult status and a following in Washington D.C. Sam and Friends aired late at night, and was the first program of its kind to be aimed at a more adult audience. The show followed a sketch comedy routine centering around the bald puppet Sam and his various acquaintances, such as Harry the Hipster, Chicken Liver, and an early version of Kermit the Frog (who actually started out as a lizard). The show's spoofing of various aspects of pop culture and song homages later would turn up again in the The Muppet Show

Red Diamond Coffee Commercials (1966)

Early on in his career, Henson garnered much attention and came to wider public awareness through several commercials he produced for advertising agencies. Some of his best remembered commercials, were made for Wilkins Coffee and Red Diamond Coffee. These commercials were notable for their over the top slapstick violence, where one muppet would threaten the other to drink the coffee... or else. Jim did this intentionally to poke fun at the way in which products were sold, as he explains below.
"Till then, [advertising] agencies believed that the hard sell was the only way to get their message over on television. We took a very different approach. We tried to sell things by making people laugh."

The La Choy Dragon (1966)

Outside of his coffee commercials, Jim Henson best known ad creation was probably the La Choy Dragon. These noodle advertisements were some of the earliest instances in which Henson was joined by Frank Oz, who would prove to be invaluable to the rest of his career. The dragon himself, was notable for his dim witted, loud, brass, and egocentric personality. He would proclaim the virtues of La Choy noodles, cooked in 'dragon fire', which usually resulted in him burning down his surroundings. In one commercial, he even gets in a spat with Rowlf the Dog. Above is the first La Choy advert, notable for starring Beverly Owen (of The Munsters).  

As a Guest on The Ed Sullivan Show (1967) - Prototype Cookie Monster

Jim Henson and his creations made many appearances on different variety shows. Once, for the Ed Sullivan Show, Henson presented a sketch featuring a greenish monster devouring an 'indestructible machine.' This muppet's huge appetite reflected in the Cookie Monster's personality several years later. The sketch also took influence from Henson's earlier short, Robot (1963), which mocked the supposed superiority and efficiency of technology. With his success on variety shows, Henson would move on to create Sesame Street and The Muppet Show, but not before creating a certain little known pilot...     

Wizard of Id Test Pilot (1968)

The Wizard of Id, by Brant Parker and John Hart, is still widely circulated in American newspapers and remains a frequently read comic strip. However, many are unaware that there were plans to bring the strip to the TV format in the late '60s. Jim Henson and his co-worker Don Shalin (who created Rowlf the Dog originally for Purina commercials) thus met with Hart to create a pilot for his strip. Although the pilot was well received, the show never came into being. This was because, by the time it garnered public attention, Henson was already too engrossed with other projects. Never the less, the pilot does offer a unique glimpse at what could have been. 

The Muppet Show (1976- 1981)- Jabberwocky

The Muppet Show is indisputably Jim Henson's and Frank Oz's most famous creation. It was created after Henson became worried that he would become typecast as a childern's entertainer and his dissatisfaction working with Saturday Night Live. Thus, he pulled several characters from earlier in his career (like Kermit and Rowlf), and added several other memorable characters (such as Miss Piggy, Gonzo, and Fozzie Bear), in order to create a colorful cast running a rather disorganized theater. The theater acted as a great vehicle, allowing for numerous variety skits and guest star appearances. To say The Muppet Show was a success is an understatement. It spawned numerous films, spinoffs, and its stars still make appearances to this very day (now under ownership of Disney). 

Frank Oz on The Dark Crystal (1982)

Henson and his crew were always up to a challenge. Once they had success with various muppet films, Henson and Frank Oz decided to try something completely different, something with more realistic puppets and a fantastical setting. The Dark Crystal, although not a hit, has attained cult status and is recognized for its groundbreaking special effects. The film was successful enough to also spawn another fantasy by Henson that was designed by Brian Froud, The Labyrinth (1986), which is far more lighthearted than The Dark Crystal. In the video above, Frank Oz explains how the characters in The Dark Crystal came to life, and gives his insights on the creation of the eccentric old astrologist Aughra.  

Fraggle Rock (1983-1988)- Traveling Matt Sunbathing

 Fraggle Rock centers around a race of small human-like creatures, the Fraggles, and their relationship and parallels with human society. Henson used humor to construct an allegory about cultural misunderstanding and the interconnection between people with each other and the environment. Like his other TV series, Fraggle Rock also featured several unique segments. The prominent segment focused on the Fraggles themselves and the inhabitants of their world, another focused on the relationship between an older man and his pet muppet dog, and the last, and perhaps funniest, segment followed the misadventures of Traveling Matt (as shown in the clip above). Matt is a Fraggle who explores 'outer space' (the human world) and reports back his findings about the 'silly creatures' that live there. From an anthropological prospective, Matt's behavior can be seen as a farce of ethnocentrism and cultural misinterpretation. For instance, in one episode, Matt is horrified to see a group of girls eating food that appears to make their tongues well up and explode. (In actuality, they are just blowing gum bubbles.)   

Dog City TV Movie (1988)- The Docks

Although filmed a year earlier, Dog City did not premiere until 1989 as part of the short lived, but Emmy award winning program, The Jim Henson Hour (which showcased a variety of Henson's work, in a similar way to Walt Disney Presents). Dog City, appropriately narrated by Rowlf the Dog, was a spoof and homage to the film noir crime dramas of the 1930s-40s. It was about Ace Yu, a German Shepard raised by a Pekinese family, who inherits a restaurant after the mysterious death of his uncle. Yu then clashes with the gang leader Bugsy Them, an egoistical bulldog, and must save his girlfriend Colleen Barker. The special was successful enough to inspire a similarly themed spinoff series of the same name, which ran from 1992-1995 on Fox. 

The Storyteller (1987-1990)- Behind the Scenes

One of the last projects Henson was involved in before his death, The Storyteller returned to the realistic, fantastical style found in The Dark Crystal and The Labyrinth. The Storyteller was a TV series inspired by Lisa Henson's (Jim Henson's daughter) classes about folklore at Harvard University. The series always started with an older man, portrayed by John Hurt, retelling a legend or fairytale to his curious dog. The first nine episodes focused on European stories, whereas the last four switched over to Greek mythology. Jim Henson certainly went out with a bang. The Storyteller not only won numerous awards, but featured great acting and boasted some of the most complex animatronic puppets to ever grace the screen. 

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Dark Crystal Trailers

As I always do to promote more overlooked / obscure films, here are some trailers to tie into my review. The first trailer, which has unfortunately been uploaded in poor quality, was made for theatrical distribution and contains the most details most about The Dark Crystal's plot and characters. (You have got to love how most of the comments on Youtube are about how the film frightened people when they were younger.) The next trailer is just a short promo made for TV. It gives off a rather erie air.

The Dark Crystal (Review)

Directors: Jim Henson, Frank Oz

Company: The Jim Henson Company, Universal Pictures

Year: 1982

Country: United States, Britain

Dated but visually impressive, it's certainly a darker fairytale film than most audiences today are accustomed to. 

The Dark Crystal has become a cult classic over the years, being well known among fantasy and special effects enthusiasts. However, public opinion has always been somewhat divided about the film. Some regard it as an ambitious but flawed film, others love it, and certain people are absolutely frightened by it. (The Dark Crystal contains more instances of scarier imagery than most PG movies these days. Keep in mind that several 'adult' films coming from the same era - Indiana Jones, Jaws, and The Gremlins - were rate at PG when they first released.) Although The Dark Crystal was a huge undertaking for Jim Henson and his crew, spending over five years in production, it did relatively modestly at the box-office, perhaps due to competition from Spielberg's E.T. and the fact that the audience may have been expecting something more like The Muppets. (Both works were made by Jim Henson and utilized puppets, but the similarities end there.) 

The film takes place "in another world, in another time, in the age of wonder." In this world, called Thra, two prominent races emerged when the crystal cracked, causing a large chunk of it to fall off, resulting in chaos. These two races represent the opposing sides of human nature. The gentle and wise Mystics are very knowledgeable about the natural world, but lack the will to fight. The quarrelsome, violent skeksis have thus taken over much of the land. (Apparently, the vulture-like skeksis were based of off the seven deadly sins and Ms. Havisham from Charles Dickens's Great Expectations.)  Both they and the mystics are dying races, and their fates will be determined by the next Great Conjunction. If the crystal is not healed by the time the three suns meet, then the skesis will reign tyrannically forever. However, if the crystal is healed before the conjunction is over, then the mystics and skeksis will reunite as a whole, and peace will be restored.

At the center of this conflict is a young elf-like boy named Jen. Jen is a gelfling, the last of his kind. All of the other gelflings were victims of genocide, killed off by the skeksis due to a prophesy stating that the crystal would be healed "by gelfling hand or by none." Raised by the Mystics, Jen is told to meet Aughra, an eccentric astrologist who lives in an observatory. Aughra gives him the shard, before her home is wrecked by the Skeksis's garthim warriors. Jen manages to escape into the swamp, were he discovers that he is not actually the last gelfling. He meets Kira, a girl raised by the swamp's Podlings, who can communicate with animals. Kira proves to be a very useful guide and offers Jen moral support. Both must keep on constant guard of danger. In addition to the garthim, both Jen and Kira must also beware of the Chamberlin, an exiled Skeksis with an annoying habit of whimpering, who plans to bait both of them back to the castle were his clan resides.  

The kind and caring Mystics contrast with...

... the cruel and nasty Skeksis. (Both representing the divided sides of human nature.)

From a production standpoint there is much to be admired, given how much labor was required to bring The Dark Crystal to life. Although the gelfling puppets have a harder time getting emotion across their faces except for mild shock or surprise, none of the other characters suffer from this problem. (Jim Henson and his staff would continue to make improvements on the range of expressions their puppets could display in the future, utilizing robotic technology.) Indeed, the height of the technology used in The Dark Crystal was bicycle chains. Today, it is so easy to overlook how intensive filmmaking can be, especially with the saturation of CGI in the market. Each puppet was performed by trained professionals or gymnasts. The skeksis were acted by men crawling on their knees, holding up an arm over their heads, to control the creatures' necks. The garthim costumes were so heavy, that the people inside them had to take breaks every five minutes, and the costumes had to be lifted off of them with cranes. The Dark Crystal's unique and intricate design was created by Brian Froud, a famous fantasy illustrator who also provided concept art for Labyrinth (1986), The Storyteller (1989), the infamous Little Nemo (1989), and Peter Pan (2003). (Froud's son, Toby, appeared as the baby in Labyrinth and would later help with the production design on Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Froud's wife, Wendy, met Brian on the set of The Dark Crystal and was responsible for the puppet work on Yoda for Star Wars.)

To appreciate all the details in this movie, it has to be seen on a large screen. 

The Dark Crystal's soundtrack is another plus. It's complexity and variation really adds to the unearthly atmosphere of the movie. The Golden Globe nominee Trevor Jones provides a memorable score that combined dramatic symphonic orchestral style with period instruments and synthesizers. Perhaps the best pieces in the film are its overture, ''Love Theme", and "Gelfling Song."

The degree characterization in the movie is bit varied, but fairly interesting. Because they are so absolutely despicable, the skeksis can be a lot of fun to watch interacting with one another, once you are able to get over the creepiness factor. (One of the movie's more humorous scenes involves them eating dinner that rivals my family's Thanksgiving celebrations in its bad manners.) The fact that the skesis can come across as goofy at times, and terrifying at others makes excellent use of contrast. Speaking of contrast, the Mystics really do an excellent job of embodying this to the skeksis. Yes, the Mystics are relatively passive and only appear at the beginning and end of the film, but they are supposed to be less flamboyant and egotistic than the skeksis. Aughra is so bossy, grotesque, and uppity that she just demands attention whenever she is on screen. Frank Oz considered her to be, "So ugly, that she is beautiful." (Frank Oz also was going to be the original voice of Aughra, but this was dropped, likely because it made her sound too much like Fozzie Bear.) Fizzgig, Kira's dog-like pet, provides the most comic relief. His fearful nature causes him to constantly bear his large number of teeth, that take up most of his body when his mouth is open!

 As for the film's leads, Kira is probably the stronger of the two. She has is knowledge about the outside world than Jen, who has lived a relatively sheltered life with the Mystics prior to his quest. Her role was not that of a princess or 'distressed damsel' common in childern's media at the time. One scene even pokes fun at gender conventions. (Jen: "Wings? You have wings? I don't have wings." Kira: "Of course not, you're a boy.") Jen, however, is ironically the least interesting of The Dark Crystal's cast. He tends to simply react to what's going on around him and talk about the difficulty of his quest...that's about it. Perhaps this is because he is ignorant about many things in the outside world. (Jen can prove to be quite knowledgeable at times, however, like when he revealed that he possesses the ability to read.)   

This ball of fluff serves as comic relief. 

Of course this film is not perfect, its age shows and some of the dialogue is a bit cheesy, but not to the point that it makes The Dark Crystal bad. Personally, the 'darkness' of the film does not overly concern or alarm me. It is somewhat refreshing to see storylines in family films that tackle more mature themes or have slightly scary scenes. Kids will grow up after all, so they should learn that the world is not all jellybeans and rainbows! Just because the film was produced by Jim Henson, it certainly does not have to be 'cute' or avoid serious topics. (Henson's career was far more elastic than most people realize.) Many people compare this film to Labyrinth (1986), but The Dark Crystal was ultimately better received by the critics and did better at the box-office. (Labyrinth did gain a substantial fanbase later on with TV reruns, but Henson sadly never lived to see this.) I would have to agree with them, as Labyrinth, while still quite enjoyable in places, is a far 'safer' film and its David Bowie songs just don't suit its aesthetics (and this is coming from somebody who likes most David Bowie songs).

Skeksis: giving young childern nightmares since 1982. 

So is this film perfect? No. Is it worth seeking out if you are curious? Yes. If you are able to accept something slightly more unconventional than most Hollywood fair, forgive some of its quirks and age, and can appreciate handmade art, I strongly suggest seeking out The Dark Crystal. Never before has there been a film that stands out so distinctively in its visual style. Due to this factor, its reliance solely on puppets (no human actors), and its importance to the history of special effects, Jim Henson is said to have been most proud of The Dark Crystal out of all of his work. Appreciation for The Dark Crystal continues to grow, and it is now considered to be one of the greatest fantasy films ever made. 

Rating: 3.5