Spectacular Attractions Video Podcast #004: Speaking for Ventriloquism

Charlie McCarthy, Edgar Bergen, Candice Bergen

Last week, I traveled to Bournemouth to give a talk at the Arts University. I think I got lucky with the weather, and it was a pleasure to enjoy the mild temperatures, intermittent sunshine and bouts of dryness. The other pleasure was addressing Bournemouth’s staff and students. They managed to sit still for a full hour while I pontificated about ventriloquism and cinema. This was the first outing for some new research I’m working on, drawn from a bigger (and long-gestating, oft-delayed) project on Cinema and Puppetry. It’s coming along slowly, but it’s getting there and gathering some speed now that I have more time to devote to it. AUB’s Animation Research Pipeline talks (of which this was one) provides a space for people like me to share work in progress.

I made a complete screen recording of my talk, and while my voice is quite clearly recorded, some of the sound on the clips might need you to raise the volume once or twice. I hope you enjoy it, but I’d love to hear any comments you have, good or bad; it’s not a short lecture, and the first half is quite theoretical, but I promise you it contains good stuff on Charlie McCarthy, The Great Gabbo, Lon Chaney in drag, Mel Gibson having a fight with a glove-puppet beaver, and tastefully coloured Keynote slides.

Here’s the video. It’s available in HD, which should help you if you want to read the text on the slides:

Fragment #35: Rudolf Arnheim on Lotte Reiniger

It is not easy to make fairy tales come alive for the eye as well as the ear, because the magic power with which children imagine what is told them is too easily paralysed by every image they see. Even the witchcraft of the film hardly ever matches the superior buoyancy of youthful imagination; in the pretty fairy tale films by Starewicz, the artistically constructed animals have something frighteningly robotic about them: they are uncanny, sleepwalking little machines. Lotte Reiniger utilises the ideal technique, the silhouette film. The silhouette is not as close to reality as a three-dimensional thing, no matter how imaginatively it may be thought out. It thus spares the viewer, particularly the child viewer, the fear that sets in when the fairy tale passes a certain point of vividness and becomes tangible reality. The moveable silhouette charmingly maintains the right balance between the product of art and life; we believe it enough to be enthralled, and we do not believe it enough to get the goose bumps we get when experiencing the supernatural.

Lotte Reiniger films Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle, developing an incredibly expressive outline as she goes. The swinging link chain that forms a tall Negro prince, the little velvet ball that rolls across the screen as Doctor Dolittle or his lazy piglet, the grotesque disproportionateness of a giraffe’s body and the slender elegance of a sparrow – the plucky scissors cut lively curves in the black paper, and living beings arise in pleasingly rounded, elegant forms. Everything is caricatured, but with so much sensitivity to the real nature of each creature that the accentuation never becomes a distortion.

When we keep in mind that the artist never sees one movement during the shooting, but moves limb for limb millimetre by millimetre on her animating table, and that every gesture must be pieced together from a hundred individual little pictures in one long process, it is almost unbelievable to behold how, when the work of months of patience flies by in seconds on-screen, every figure acts just right. The apes swing from the branches, the duck waddles, hurried and plump, the lion, a pompous heraldic animal, proudly sways his behind, the wave sprays, and the snow falls softly to the ground. It must be a very happy feeling for Lotte Reiniger, similar to when a musician hears his mute-born child for the first time, to see the unwieldy piece of carton – laboriously patched together with wires, and without the guidance of a human hand – dancing lively, amazing dances up on the screen, full of life as nature itself, and yet bound by the gracious style of her most charming personal designs.

Rudolf Arnheim (1928) Film Essays and Criticism. p.141-2.

The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn

Steven Spielberg has owned the rights to the Tintin books since 1983, when they were passed to him by Hergé‘s widow. Apparently, the Belgian author was an admirer of Spielberg’s work, and had indicated that he was the only director who could do the stories justice. Presumably, both Spielberg and Hergé saw common ground between Tintin and Indiana Jones but, if I may be allowed to presume a little further, neither of them can have expected that the finished film would take nearly three decades, and be a fully-CG 3D motion-capture extravaganza on a budget of $130 million. For comparison, Raiders of the Lost Ark had been finished for $18 million, and Hergé’s death coincided with the release of MS Dos 2.0. But while the new film appears on a wave of publicity about its state-of-the art technology, it is also resolutely old-fashioned. Continue reading

Cineblatz Randomised

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Usually, when I write these “randomised” posts, I use a random number generator to select three or four frames from a film; these then serve as starting points for a discussion of the film, hopefully from unexpected angles, focusing on the minutiae that reveal the broader concerns of the whole. See here for more examples. In this case, I’m using it as a way to still the torrent of Jeff Keen‘s two-minute collage film Cineblatz, and instead of using the number generator to tell me which minute from the film to examine in more detail, I have intermittently tapped the “framegrab” button to gather a gallery of stills from the film. You can click on any one of them at the bottom of this post, or see them, in sequence, in the slideshow at the top. Continue reading

Koko in 1999 (1927)

One thing that will strike you about the Fleischers’ 1927 cartoon short Ko-ko in 1999 is how it anticipates other motifs in science fiction cinema. Most notable is the moment where the eponymous clown finds himself trapped in a feeding machine with more than a passing resemblance to the feeding machine tested by Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times (1936). When a stern Max Fleischer tries to bring Ko-ko down a peg or two by creating a bunch of rival clowns, Ko-ko rebels and shunts the competition out of the frame. Fleischer punishes his creation by conjuring Father Time, who pursues Ko-ko into the future – 1999, to be precise. There, he is assailed by all kinds of automated obstacles, and acquires a wife out of a vending machine. Like A Trip to Mars, which I posted here a couple of weeks ago, this is an extract from the excellent Inkwell Images DVD set, which also features documentaries about the Fleischer Bros. Studios. The music is Stereolab‘s remix of Shonen Knife‘s Hot Chocolate, taken from the Ultra Mix album.

Koko the Clown in A Trip to Mars (1924)

Still messing around basic techniques in iMovie before I start chopping up my own footage, I thought I’d try adding a new soundtrack to an old cartoon.

There’s no shortage of posts about space travel here at Spectacular Attractions, at least where Georges Melies and his film A Trip to the Moon (something of an obsession of mine) are concerned. This 1924 Fleischer Bros short is certainly a descendent of that movie. Koko the Clown was borne out of experiments with rotoscoping by Max Fleischer. The process involves drawing frame-by-frame animation over live-action reference footage, and represents one of the originating techniques for today’s motion-capture technologies.

The Fleischer cartoons became increasingly sophisticated in their interplays between live action and animated imagery, and usually offered a tricksy variation on the same concept: Max Fleischer is seen drawing Koko, conjuring him ‘Out of the Inkwell’, as the series (and the Fleischer’s production company) would be called; Koko then runs amok, goes on an adventure, before eventually being returned to the bottle of ink and the stopper replaced. It’s a witty recurring riff on the relationship between artist and artwork, as Koko resists his limitations as a simple line drawing, yearning to escape from the flat page on the easel and flee into other worlds. The Fleischers were experts at integrating technical innovations with simple themes and narratives, as they did in the Betty Boop series (the subject of one of the first ever posts on this blog), where Max was more of a flirtatious overseer of his creaion. By the end of this cartoon, you’ll be amazed by how fluidly Fleischer inserts himself into the action in a dazzling finale that echoes the race around Saturn’s rings in R.W. Paul’s The ? Motorist (1906)

I’ve set this short cartoon to music by Michael Nyman. When looking for a soundtrack, I wanted to avoid the usual jaunty piano accompaniment that usually gets tacked onto this sort of thing: I wanted something a bit more surging and epic (plus, I couldn’t figure out how to re-attach the original soundtrack in iMovie: hey, I’m still a novice at this…). I hope you like it, and I hope it’s an improvement on some of the very fuzzy copies of the Inkwell films floating around on YouTube: if you want more, plus documentaries about the Fleischer Bros and their studios, I’d recommend investing in the DVD boxset from Inwell Images, Inc., from which this cartoon is an excerpt. I will follow this one in due course with another Fleischer treat, Koko in 1999, to which I’ve added music by Stereolab and Shonen Knife. You can view or sign up for my YouTube channel here.

Jan Švankmajer: Animated Self-Portrait

In an attempt to eradicate every last atom of spare time I might have available, I’ve started playing around with iMovie, which lets me edit little videos, some of which I intend to start posting here. Last year, I tried out podcasting, and I may go back to that someday, but for now I plan to experiment with converting some of my blog posts to video, with clips and voiceover etc. It’ll be a good exercise for me, and hopefully a fun way to get to grips with the software (I know I’m late to the table on this…) and the basics of video editing. I promise to keep them brief, starting with this little excerpt from David Ehrlich’s 1989 short film Animated Self-Portraits, for which he asked 27 animators to describe themselves and their work in a brief animated sequence. These precious few seconds are the contribution of one of my all-time favourite filmmakers, Jan Svankmajer (read more of my Svankmajer posts here), who seems to take the project remit quite literally by animated a series of photographic portraits of himself. His face suddenly erupts with a wriggling mass of modelling clay, until his eyes and tongue poke through. The self-portrait is therefore partial, stuck somewhere between direct representation (the photograph) and fantastic, malleable distortion (the clay); Svankmajer is expressed through, and obscured by, the materials with which he works. There are lots of tongues sticking out in Svankmajer films. It’s an uncouth, sly motif that he uses to mark his filmic turf, but it also echoes his interests in depictions of food, eating, and the raw meatiness of human bodies and their functions. The tongue is both interior and exterior, the tool of both taste and disgust, the sensuous and the grotesque, so it makes sense for him to use it as a pop-up mascot in so much of his work.

Six Things I Like About Rango

1. You didn’t see it coming. Not literally, of course. You probably saw a trailer or a poster with a lizard on it at some point in the last 6 months. And you might have heard that it was “a bit quirky” or something like that. But Hollywood quirky tends to mean having one character look a bit like a goth, or talk with a funny accent. Rango has funny accents, and I think one of the critters looks a bit like a goth, but it also has a spindly plot structure that ducks and weaves as it seeks out a consistent story that’ll hang together. It gets there, and there’s a tinge of disappointment when it turns into a more conventional quest and chase film, but you still get to see that rarest of commodities, a film with ideas, and an urgent desire to throw them at you.

2. How very meta. Powerless to resist the transformation of “meta-” from lowly prefix to free-standing, if shaky-legged, adjective, I find myself using it at the start of the sentence – look back at the start of this sentence! Good, now you’re back here at the next sentence, reading this illustration-by-example of what “meta” means. Anyway, it’s overused as a way of talking about the self-reflexivity of a book or a film, but you’ll find few films this year that trouble the needle of your meta detector more than Rango manages in its opening scenes. Beginning with a lizard in search of a story, a characterless blank looking for his metier, the film pins down its core metaphor of what it is to be a chameleon in seconds, and thus barely needs to hammer said metaphor home over the course of the next 100 minutes. Rango gradually acts his way into a genre setting and story through mimicry and learned behaviours, but at a time when kids’ films seem obliged to spin some message about not conforming, being yourself etc., Rango celebrates the paradoxical comforts of finding a place where you belong, the joys of fitting in. Of course, Rango tries too hard to fit in and compromises himself and others in the process, but he still knows that there’s no shame in being part of a group you enjoy being part of.

3. It’s not in 3-D. I was not a 3-D skeptic – I actually quite enjoyed the novelty period, when it looked like cinema had a new toy to play with, and it wanted to show you its new tricks. But then the cynical rot set in, after one too many post-op monstrosities tarnished our screens with their ersatz, dimensionalised messes (Clash of the Titans was the one that killed it for me). The advantage for Rango is that the lack of “depth” means that it makes full use of the width of the screen, focusing on the arrangement of objects and figures across the frame instead of mashing them up into some blurry, front-to-back eye-test aesthetic.

4. Most of its pop-culture references are pre-1970. It is de rigeur for your common-or-garden animated feature to incorporate a conveyor belt of nods, winks and homages to whatever seems to be “hip”at that moment (and yes, I know that using the word “hip” disqualifies one from being hip). But within its first 20 minutes, Rango crams in tributes to Don Quixote, Samuel Beckett, Sergio Leone and Salvador Dali. While other cartoons are content to toss the bone (fnar) of sexual innuendo to adult audiences to reward them for chaperoning the kids to the cinema, this film collapses the boundary between adult and child viewers. There’s a danger that it will all fly pointlessly over the heads of the target audience; it is sophisticated in its cultural touchstones and passionate about them, too, but colourful and barmy enough to excite a childish sense of gleeful play. For those who into all of its references, there’s always that nasty little delight in picturing the faces of dumbfounded few who thought they were getting themselves in for the usual potty-mouths-and-poop-jokes approach that passes for ‘adult animation’ these days.

5. Johnny Depp is not too nauseating. If you’re already an unquestioning fan of Johnny Depp, skip to no.6 straight away: you like what he does, and he does plenty of it in Rango. You don’t need persuading. If, on the other hand, you’ve gradually grown tired of the acid-trip-in-a-dressing-up-box schtick, the useless British accents, the wackier-than-thou show-boating, the panto-damery mistaken for eclecticism, you’re probably put off by the idea of listening to him give voice to a neurotic lizard. But it’s not that bad. At least there’s an element of self-analysis to the character, who trawls through his own repertoire of tics and tongues to come up with a convincing and consistent persona. Plus, the supporting cast of great gruffnesses, including Ned Beatty, Alfred Molina, Harry Dean Stanton, Ray Winstone, Bill Night, Ian Abercrombie etc., not to mention surprising and spiky turns from Isla Fisher and Abigail Breslin, off-sets and sets off the central performance with a sterling collective effort.

6. Industrial Light and Magic did the visual effects. That means that not only is the character animation wonderfully designed, a scratchy, cuddle-free mob of scaly, spiny, hairy critters, but the textures lighting and surfaces are all beautifully detailed. One of the things about Disney’s Tangled (which has many excellent qualities) that bothered me was some of the ropy water simulations. They just looked a little cheap, and not a patch on the hand painted versions from Pinocchio. But Rango has magnificent water, dust and glass effects that at times I doubted that they were CG at all. There’s an uncanny blend of Tex Avery logic and photorealistic look that is genuinely arresting, occasionally unsettling, and it’s primarily because the digital artists are accustomed to making this stuff look real, not cartoony. Roger Deakins, who must have been practising his Western tricks at the same time on True Grit, served as “visual consultant”; I’m not sure what that involves in practice, but the visuals here produce an immaculate pastiche of epic spaghetti western cinematography, and must presumably have been guided by the eye of an expert photographer. And while you’re enjoying the lack of 3-D, and if your cinema offers you the choice, avoid the digitally-projected version and see it on film. It just looks lovelier, and even the occasional pops and scratches will dirty things up a little. The machine-tooled sharp edges of digital projection work against the rough edges that Rango wants you to embrace.

Norman McLaren: Spectacular Abstractions

[This is a guest post by one of my undergraduate students, Harrison Laird. The assignment was to produce screening notes to accompany a small collection of films connected by one of the topics from the module. Comments and feedback below would be most welcome. Read more student work here.]

Born in Stirling Scotland in 1914 and having attended the Glasgow School of Fine Arts from 1932, Norman McLaren is known as one of “the most significant abstract filmmakers of the British inter-war period” (Sexton), with influences stemming from the Russian filmmakers Eisenstein and Pudovkin.  Despite being successful and influential during this period, it is after the war that he “enjoyed a significant degree of artistic freedom” (McWilliams) in being able to return to filmmaking for pleasure. Having been influenced in particular an abstract film by the German animator Oscar Fischinger, McLaren’s experimentation in technique and content produced an avant-garde collection that displays an incredible attention to the individual frame, and in the aesthetic symbiosis of both image and sound from one frame to the next; the result being, especially in films such as Begone Dull Care (1949) and Blinkety Blank (1955), an elaborate and exciting meld of musical improvisation, abstract imagery, and exploding colour. In each film, McLaren’s technique is “something to be defined precisely, and exploited just once – it seeming important that each film be regarded as a unique invention” (Curtis, 178) stressing the need for diversity throughout his work.

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The Significance of Sound in Norman McLaren’s Films

[This is a guest post by one of my undergraduate students, Jonny Williams. The assignment was to produce a set of screening notes that might be of use to first time viewers of a set of films connected by one of the topics from the module. Feedback in the comments section below would be most welcome.]

Norman McLaren was a 20th century filmmaker renowned for his innovation with non-traditional techniques of animation within his filmography, ranging from stop motion and pixilation as seen in 1952’s Neighbours to scratching images directly onto film such as in Begone Dull Care from 1949 and 1955’s Blinkity Blank (in which the soundtrack was also produced via the film). McLaren’s works share a reliance on audio in order to drive the visual aspect of his films.

Born in Scotland in 1914, McLaren followed his father’s employment path initially whilst attending the Glasgow School of Art from 1932 to 1936, studying interior design. During his time there, he became interested in motion pictures, and especially experimental film, leading him to set up a production group for him and his fellow students. As he couldn’t afford a camera, he instead washed off the emulsion from an cinema’s discarded 35mm reel and painted directly onto each frame. Around 15 years later, McLaren employed this same technique in the production of Begone Dull Care.

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