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.

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.

Picture of the Week #60

This week’s picture is a little preview of things to come, I hope. Tomorrow, I’m off to Frankfurt to visit archival holdings for the Diehl Brothers (Ferdinand (1901 – 1992) and Hermann (1906 – 1983), German animators who released a feature-length puppet film (Die Sieben Raben) days before the world premiere of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (though neither film can truly claim to be the first animated feature, an honour which must go Christiani Quirino’s The Apostle from 1917, though no prints survive, leaving Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed as the oldest surviving animated feature). They achieved lasting fame with their hedgehog character Mecki, but little has been written about them in English. I’d like to find out much more about them, hence the visit to Frankfurt. I look forward to sharing much more information here in the future, but for now here’s a taste, in the form of the patent filed by Ferdinand Diehl in 1935. His innovation is a system of animation that allows for improved mouth movements, removing the need for head replacements when changing the expressions on a puppet’s face during stop-motion animation. Here we find one small example of a puppet’s anatomy becoming the site of negotiation over realistic motion, as well as the practicalities of streamlining the industrial production of animated subjects.

The Illusionist

Sylvain Chomet has made a film for me. Imagine my surprise when I sat down for a screening of The Illusionist to find that it had been handmade to my specifications. It was a little awkward at first, as it is always is when someone you’ve never met gives you an excessively generous gift, but I decided to go with it. I even allowed other people to stay and watch it with me. Chomet must have somehow found out that animation, magic and Jacques Tati are some of my very favourite things, and has managed to paint them into a glorious whole. He missed my memo about commissioning a score by Tom Waits and a resurrected Django Reinhardt in favour of music he wrote himself, but I can’t have it all my own way, I guess.

Animation is about talking animals, singing and dancing, bright colours and happy happy things, isn’t it? No. That’s a particularly tenacious Disney-shaped template which has held sway over the form for decades, but it’s certainly not a default setting. Replacing those elements with a melancholy, contemplative and almost plotless eighty-minute excursus on nostalgia and the thoughtless, inhumane creep of modernity, Chomet has bucked those trends to produce a thoroughly unfashionable film about the fragility of beautiful things.

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Picture of the Week #40: Disney’s Flowers and Trees

On this day in 1932, Disney premiered Flowers and Trees, the first cartoon short to use Technicolor, and the first to win the Academy Award for best animated short (Walt Disney Productions won the next seven years in a row, too). It was already in production as a black-and-white film when Walt decided to start again and use it as a test case for the three-strip process, for which Disney had an exclusive contract.

Picture of the Week #31: Juan Pablo Bravo’s Infographics

For this week’s pictures, you’re going to need to click on the images below, or download them to look at them in detail. They’re too wide to fit comfortably on this page, so you can either click to enlarge, or visit Juan Pablo Bravo’s Flickr page to marvel at his handiwork. He’s painstakingly composited dozens of Disney characters, Pixar characters and movie cars into a series of infographics for the benefit of nerds who like to see images placed next to each either in a long scroll so you can compare their relative sizes, shapes and chronologies. So, click on the fine strips below and enjoy:

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Georges Méliès in Springfield

Last week’s episode of The Simpsons (462 – 2121 MABF13 “Moe Letter Blues“) featured a scene that gave Spectacular Attractions a bit of a thrill. The interlude for Itchy and Scratchy, psychotic cat-and-mouse masters of escalating violence, was titled La Mort d’un Chat sur la Lune (“The Death of a Cat on the Moon”), and delivered an affectionate pastiche of Georges Méliès’ Le Voyage dans la Lune, one of this blog’s favourite topics of conversation (see here for my ever-expanding, shot-by-shot analysis of the film). Adding to a long list of tributes to the film, Itchy and Scratchy begin their skit with Scratchy the cat acting as cameraman for Itchy’s film of a trip to the moon. The camera runs out of film, and the furious director slices open the cat’s belly and loads his intestines into the camera like a filmstrip…

Poor Scratchy then has to crank his guts through the camera, but when the prop moon falls down from its cables and smashes, Itchy again improvises a solution by decapitating his cameraman, inflating his head with bellows (perhaps another homage to Méliès’ L’homme à la tête de Caoutchouc, made the year before A Trip to the Moon in 1901) and hanging it up against the backdrop. The team of bearded mouse explorers light the fuse on their rocket…

…. launching it right into Scratchy’s eye. It’s a tribute to the enduring appeal and renown of Méliès’ film that it’s key image of the Man in the Moon with a rocket in his eye is still recognisable after more than a century. And look, they even got the tongue right:

  • This is the second time A Trip to the Moon has been referenced in an Itchy and Scratchy cartoon – in Par for the Corpse, from the season 13 episode “Blame it on Lisa”, Itchy uses Scratchy’s head as a golf ball and drives it into the moon. Anyone have pictures of this?

Picture of the Week #8: How the Grinch Stole Christmas

Only one week to go until Christmas. Scary, eh? I’m sure you didn’t need a reminder that you’re behind schedule, but how about this picture of sketches  from Chuck Jones‘ 1966 film of Dr. SeussHow the Grinch Stole Christmas, the seasonal tale of a scrooge-like green dude confiscating presents from the townspeople of Whoville to prevent them from having Christmas fun. Of course, like all other scrooges in all other TV specials, from Charlie Brown to Alf, he learns that stealing presents is not enough to dampen the celebrants’ spirits, because the true meaning of Christmas resides in the hearts of families and in friendship and in goodwill and ….zzzzzzzzzzz… Let’s face it, the Grinch is much more fun when he’s mean. Ebeneezer Scrooge is a more dramatic and intriguing figure when he’s bitter and twisted – a happy Scrooge is a creepy, suspect Scrooge. Beware of Grinches bearing gifts. Merry Christmas, one and all.

Walt Disney’s Pinocchio: Motion, Pictures

[Michael Sporn’s amazing animation blog has a post of design sketches from the production of Pinocchio, such as the one above. See many more here.]

Walt Disney's Pinocchio1940’s Pinocchio has long been my favourite Disney cartoon. Aside from the consistent beauty of its cartoon cast, Olde Europe sets (a lot of which seem to be warmly lit by log fires) and the immaculate handling of key set-pieces (that’s a hell of a whale!), it’s the most deeply self-reflexive of Disney films. It matches the Disney template of a loosely adapted classic tale (Pinocchio feels like a much older folk tale than its 1883 publication date) with a morally didactic structure, to a meditation on the magic of movement and characterisation. As well as being an animated feature film, Pinocchio is a story about animation. The course of Pinocchio’s journey from lump of inert wood to a “real boy” is a trip through various gradations of anthropomorphism. Pinocchio starts out as a lifeless marionette, animated only by Gepetto’s hands, and works his way up to the goal of becoming a real live boy.

Disney Pinocchio Background

Disney misses out the earliest bits of Carlo Collodi’s 1883 The Adventures of Pinocchio, where the tale begins with a simple bit of wood:

Centuries ago there lived–
“A king!” my little readers will say immediately.

No, children, you are mistaken. Once upon a time there was a piece of
wood. It was not an expensive piece of wood. Far from it. Just a common
block of firewood, one of those thick, solid logs that are put on the
fire in winter to make cold rooms cozy and warm.

I do not know how this really happened, yet the fact remains that
one fine day this piece of wood found itself in the shop of an old
carpenter. His real name was Mastro Antonio, but everyone called him
Mastro Cherry, for the tip of his nose was so round and red and shiny
that it looked like a ripe cherry.

As soon as he saw that piece of wood, Mastro Cherry was filled with joy.
Rubbing his hands together happily, he mumbled half to himself:

“This has come in the nick of time. I shall use it to make the leg of atable.”

That piece of wood, soon to be cut into boy-shape, was enchanted from the beginning. In the Disney film, his animation is the work of the Blue Fairy, who acts upon Gepetto’s heartfelt wish for a son. Come to think of it, the Disney version also misses out quite  a lot of Pinocchio’s antisocial behaviour, and the bit where he burns his own feet off, and the bit where he kills Jiminy Cricket (referred to as the “talking cricket” in the book) with a hammer… It’s also clear that when Collodi’s story talks about the aim of becoming a proper boy, it is referring directly to the process of becoming a functional, obedient, mature member of society. That interpretation is certainly available in the Disney rendition, but it seems more focused on the advantages that Pinocchio will enjoy by becoming a full, flesh-and-blood human, by inheriting a “correct” body that isn’t marked out as distinctly “other”: aside from his basic designation of otherness (he’s a puppet!), Pinocchio doesn’t seem to suffer many consequences associated with it – he is exploited for sure, but only like other little boys are seen to be exploited. He suffers none of the heartlessness of the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz, for instance, and seems to function pretty well as a stringless marionette. Here, Pinocchio’s wish to become a real boy is the wish for animation, not socialisation. When the Blue Fairy brings him to life for the first time, Jiminy Cricket turns to the camera:

His exclamation is intended to invite the viewer to marvel in return at Pinocchio’s vitality, as if he’s some kind of modern marvel. Sure enough, the film wants you to notice all the different kinds of movement there are. It anthropomorphises plenty of things – look at how expressive Figaro the cat is, or how much like an eyelash-batting starlet the goldfish behaves, or how the whale has a gangster’s sneer and snarl – to give a kind of human essence to so many living things;

Gepetto’s workshop is filled with automata and clocks; Stromboli the puppet master puts Pinocchio in a show with actual marionettes, setting up for a comparison which shows how robotic and inert they really are;

the fairground at Pleasure Island is a deceptive paradise of motion-machines of entertainment (carousels, ferris wheels etc.). It’s all a part of the film’s underlying theme of movement as the external index, the visual guarantor of internal states of mind and personality. When Pinocchio behaves like a good boy, he’ll be allowed to move like one.

031009_NF_Feat_PinocchioModel_feat A full-sized marionette built by Bob Jones was used as a character model by the animators, to help them to add a bit of puppet-like movement to the character, capturing the swing of strung limbs, the clack of wooden joints. It is one of the oldest models in the Disney archives today. The Character Model Department had been created during the production of Snow White to make clay versions of the main characters to give the animators a three-dimensional point of reference, but the Pinocchio puppet is fully articulated. Jones worked in the camera department, but was asked to design and demonstrate how a marionette moves. They even made him dress up as Gepetto to do it. You can find out more about the Disney puppets here, and Cartoon Brew has scans of a Popular Mechanics article about the making of Pinocchio here. Mark Mayerson’s blog has a ton of stuff about the film, including mosaic frame grabs indicating which animators worked on which shots.

The house style of Disney character animation might be seen as the result of studious analysis of physical movement, whether it’s using a real marionette for reference, or taking live action film of actor Val Stanton going through Jiminy’s moves to use for rotoscoping material: several characters, most obviously the Blue Fairy, whose movements are the most reserved, were traced over, either copying motion exactly or using it as a rough guide. The rules of stretch and squash, which you can see formalised and played out in design sketches like the one below from John Kricfalusi, define consistencies in the ways in which bodies extend and reform their shape:

See also this definition. Adherence to rules such as stretch and squash can help to establish a “house style” – by making sure that all characters within a studio’s film(s) have similar characteristics of motion, you can ensure consistency, and prevent the distortions of bodies from becoming too surreal or elastic.  The crazy-limbed, eye-popping, tongue-lolling Tex Avery figures, for instance, exhibit a lot more bodily stretching and squashing than most Disney characters, for instance, but they still obey certain kinds of internally consistent logic.

Of course Pinocchio tells a more prominent story of a child’s adventure and development into a brave, selfless hero, but it is built from the elements of a system that turns even the most basic movements into points of spectacle, channelling attention towards the twirl and swish of cartoon bodies brought to life.

You can see more of my Pinocchio frame grabs in the slideshow below, or visit my Flickr set and download them for your own ends:

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P.S. Now, maybe this is nothing, but I couldn’t help noticing the prominence of buttocks in the opening scenes of the film. Yes, you read that right. Don’t believe me? See below:

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It’s just an observation – I have no theory on why there are so many bottom-based jokes, but I’d be happy to hear some if you can figure it out. It might just be an insinuation of the threat of discipline: badly behaved children get a spanking (as evidenced by the little automaton that’s stuck in an eternal vignette of punishment for a transgression long-forgotten). I don’t want to get psychoanalytic about this, but if you have any thoughts, feel free to add them in the comments section below.

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