Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Animation Techniques - Ink, Pixels, and Everything In Between

Animation has vert few limits. It can tell nearly any kind of story and depict nearly any kind of imagery. Similarly, almost any tool or medium that can be used to make a static work of art can also be used to create art that moves. There are many different kinds of animation techniques out there, some well known, some obscure. But to the average person, some of the terminology and concepts mentioned when talking about animation can get confusing. Which kinds of animation use computers? How can you animated with paint? What the heck is "Flash animation" anyway? In this article, we're going to be taking a closer look at some of the different kinds of animation. Some you may know well already. Other you may have never seen before. All have their particular strengths and weaknesses and the potential to become amazing animation in the hands of talented artists.

Hand-drawn animation

Hand-drawn animation, also called 2D animation, cel animation, or traditional animation, is one of the older animation techniques. A series of drawings, each one slightly different from the preceding drawing, are photographed one at a time onto film to create the illusion of movement. The name “cel animation” comes from the clear sheets of celluloid called “cels” that the final images of characters and other moving elements in a scene would be traced onto from the original drawings on paper for more studio productions. (Independent animators sometimes film their original pencil drawings rather than tracing them onto cels.) Because they were clear, cels could be laid over a background and other cels, preventing the artists from having to redraw the static parts of a scene, such as the background, over and over again. Later productions used sheets of acetate in place of celluloid, which was highly flammable and quick to decompose, but the term “cels” stuck. Most modern day productions of hand-drawn animation scan the artists’ drawings into computers, where they are colored and then composited together with the other elements in the scene.

Hand-drawn animation has been used in everything from features films to television show to advertising and beyond. Most Disney feature films are hand-drawn animation, including their upcoming feature The Princess and the Frog, seen above.

So is most anime, like Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away.

The majority of studio made shorts from the 20th century are hand-drawn, including the Warner Brothers Looney Tunes shorts:

Puppet Animation

Puppet Animation, also called stop-motion animation, is a very old technique. In puppet animation, the sets are sculpted or fabricated models, while the characters are articulated figures. Each puppet has an armature – a kind of metal skeleton which helps the puppet to keep its shape and the joints to both move easily and hold a position. Movement is created by shooting a frame of film, manipulating the puppet slightly, and shooting another frame. Puppet animation can be a very unforgiving technique, since it does not allow the animator to go back and correct mistakes. If a puppet falls over, or a light is in the wrong place, or the animation simply doesn’t look right, the whole shot has to be animated all over again from the beginning. One of the big benefits of puppet animation is that all the characters and sets are existing three dimensional objects. In hand-drawn animation, changing the camera angle during a scene requires making new drawings and usually background artwork. With puppet animation, changing the camera angle is often as simple as moving the camera. Animators don’t have to worry about characters looking consistent from scene to scene since they are filming the exact same puppets, or identical copies of one puppet made to allow multiple scenes to be shot at once or to ensure that if a puppet is damaged, a replacement is available.

Puppet animation used to be pretty common, especially on television. But when computer animation arrived on the scene and provided a way to get a similar dimensional look without some of the drawbacks of either puppet of clay animation, puppet animation wasn't used as much. But the medium still has its fans and proponents and puppet animated feature films continue to be released, like Fantastic Mr. Fox (shown above), due out in wide release this Wednesday.

The Nightmare Before Christmas helped to reinvigorate puppet animation and define it as the animation style for strange and quirky films:

Speaking of Christmas, most of the famous Rankin-Bass holiday specials are puppet animation:

Clay Animation

Clay Animation is a close relative of puppet animation, so much so that sometimes both are referred to as different forms of stop-motion animation. The technique is pretty much the same as puppet animation except that the figures are made of clay or a substance similar to clay. This makes the figures more malleable than those used in puppet animation. While puppet animation figures can generally only move where joints have been constructed into their armatures, every part of a clay animation model can theoretically be moved, squashed, stretched, or manipulated in any way imaginable.

Some of the best known clay animation comes from British studio Aardman Animations, home of Wallace and Gromit, seen above in a trailer for their 2005 movie Wallace and Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

The long running television series Gumby, created by Art Clokey, used clay animation.

Like puppet animation, clay animation used to be a lot more common before computer animation came along. This advertisement by WIll Vinton Studios for the California Raisin Advisory board became immensely popular and lead to additional commercials, specials, a cel-animated TV series, and tons of merchandising.

Computer Animation

Computer Animation, sometimes called 3D animation or CGI – “computer generated imagery” animation, is a relatively new technique that has only become commercially viable in the past few decades. It’s sort of a digital version of puppet animation. Instead of existing in the real world, all of the characters, sets, and props are built inside of the computer by combining and manipulating simple polygons. The animators can then move various parts of the models to create the motions and expressions they want. In some cases, the animator can pick the start and end point for a movement and the computer can help to fill in the in-between frames. But it’s still up to the animator to decide on the speed of the movement, whether it becomes slower or faster or stays at the same rate, how long a pose or expression gets held, and numerous other decisions that can make the difference between mediocre animation and great animation. Computer animation may seem superior to either puppet or clay animation in that an animator can go back and correct one small mistake without having to re-animated the entire shot. But computers have their weak points. Certain textures and objects – like skin, hair, and clothing – have proven difficult for computers to replicate convincingly, though new technologies have helped to overcome many of these problems.. Computer can also produce bizarre mistakes or even crash, causing an animator to lose unsaved work.

Computer animation is very popular right now and can be seen all over the place. Above is a scene from Pixar's Toy Story, the first fully computer animated feature film. All of Pixar's movies are computer animated, including the upcoming third Toy Story film. DreamWorks Animation started off producing hand-drawn animated films, but now focuses exclusively on computer animation, like their next movie How To Train Your Dragon.

As computer animation has become less expensive to make, it's shown up more and more on television. The first fully computer animated TV series was Mainframe Entertainment's ReBoot. Shown here is the intro to a third season episode called "Firewall," parodying the openings of the James Bond films.

Flash Animation

Flash Animation is another one of the newer ways to animate and another technique that utilizes the computer. Flash animation is animation created using Adobe Flash (formerly Macromedia Flash) or a similar animation program. Basically, Flash allows animators to break down characters and other elements into numerous pieces. The face of a character animated in Flash may consist of the head, two separate eyes, a mouth, and maybe even separate hair. It’s sort of like hand-drawn animation with an infinite number of cels. Flash also lets the animator take these individual pieces and tilt them, flip them, deform them, change their size, or swap them out for different pieces. If the animator wants to tilt the character’s head to the side, he or she could group all of the pieces of the face together and rotate all of them to the desired angle. The program fills in the in-between steps based on where in the timeline the animator sets the start and end of the movement. Additionally, to make the character blink, the animator can swap the eyes out for a drawing or series of drawings of the characters eyes closing. These drawings can be saved to a library of different pieces that the animator can use again and again. So if the character blinks again, the animator can reuse the same drawing or drawings of the blink.

Flash was originally designed to create simple animations that could be viewed on the internet over the slow connections that were common at the time. Some of the earliest Flash animations used very simple limited animation, which kept the file size down. Since then, bandwidth has increased, allowing for longer and more complicated animations. The time saving features of Flash have also made it attractive for television animation production.

Above is the opening of the TV series ¡Mucha Lucha!, which was mong the first television show to be animated in Flash.

Flash is still used for web animations, which can be found all over the place. A couple of examples are the Homestar Runner cartoons, the extremely violent Happy Tree Friends, and the absurdist parody (of sorts) "Baman Piderman," seen below:

Cutout Animation

Cutout animation, also called cut-paper animation, is a technique in which the characters, props, and backgrounds are flat cutouts. They are usually made from paper, though some animations use cloth or photographs. By moving the cutouts a little at a time and shooting frames of film for each small movement, animation is created. Getting complicated movements requires many individual pieces. For a character to lift his or her arm, the arm needs to be at least one cutout piece separate from the body. If an object turns around, several different cutouts will be needed to show the object from different angles. Like puppet and clay animation, cutout animation does not allow the animator to go back and correct mistakes without re-animating the whole shot.

Computer programs like Flash have allowed animators to simulate the look of cutout animation while enjoying the benefits of animating on a computer, such as not having to keep track of potentially tiny pieces of paper and being able to alter a single frame of animation. The TV series South Park, for example, used actual cutout animation for its original shorts and pilot episodes, but then began using computer programs to achieve the same effect. Currently, the show is animated using Maya, a computer program generally used to create 3D computer animation. Though many animators like the advantages of using a computer to create animation which looks like cutouts, some still prefer the hands-on approach.

The example above is a Terry Gilliam animation from Monty Python's Flying Circus. Below is short clip from a much older example of cutout animation and the oldest known surviving surviving animated feature film: Lotte Reiniger's The Adventures of Prince Achmed.

Paint-on-Glass Animation

Watch Korova / The Cow by Alexander Petrov in Animation  |  View More Free Videos Online at Veoh.com

A less common animation technique, paint-on-glass animation involves the animator painting a scene on a piece of glass, shooting a frame of film, and then reworking the image slightly. Oil paints are most commonly used since they dry very slowly, though other types of paint can be mixed with different agents to give them this quality. This method requires the animator to erase and repaint parts of the image. For this reason, working with paint on glass can be very difficult. If the animator makes a mistake, not only is there no way to go back and fix the mistake, but much of the original image may be gone. With no clay, puppets, or cutout pieces to reposition, the animator must either start over completely or live with the mistake. But paint-on-glass can also be very beautiful, giving the look of a painting come to life like no other animation technique can.

Because of it's difficult and time consuming nature, paint-on-glass animation comes mostly from independent animators. The short above is called Korova - "The Cow" - by Alesandr Petrov, one of the masters of paint-on-glass. Caroline Leaf's film The Street uses the same technique, but a very different style:

Sand Animation

Another less common technique, sand animation is created by the animator making images with – you guessed it – sand. Like paint on glass, sand is not a forgiving medium in that once the sand is moved, it can never be put back exactly the way it was.

Some people will remember the animation above from Sesame Street. The short below is Atormenta by CESARLINGA Animations.

Sand animation has been getting some attention recently due to the sand artist who recently won the television talent competition Ukraine's Got Talent. While this technique is sometimes also called "sand animation," it is not really animation, since there is no illusion of movement created. The artist uses the sand to create images which are projected onto a large screen for the live audience. Despite not being animation, it is fascinating to watch and should give you some idea of the work that goes into making art with sand, whether static or animated.

This is by no means a complete list of every method of animation out there. There are many others, both old and new. Animators are always trying out new techniques or using old ones in ways never thought of before. Rhe medium of animation is always growing and changing.

If you have any questions, comments, or other animation techniques you would like to discuss, please share them in the comments section.

All videos are copyright their respective owners.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Bluth Factor: All Dogs Go To Heaven


Right up until the end, the late 1980s were a good time for Don Bluth. After the disappointing box office performance of The Secret of NIMH and some intriguing experiments in fully-animated video games that ran up against the collapse of the industry in the first half of the decade, Bluth partnered with businessman Morris Sullivan to form Sullivan Bluth Studios. The new studio had two bona fide successes under its belt with An American Tail and The Land Before Time. By the end of 1988, the studio was working on its next feature: All Dogs Go To Heaven. Unfortunately, All Dogs Go To Heaven marked the start of a slump for Sullivan Bluth Studios, in part because Bluth and crew’s desire to get Disney back to producing quality films by providing them with strong competition worked a little too well. The Land Before Time had proved to be a worthy opponent for Disney’s Oliver and Company released the same year, the latter outgrossing the former by only around $5 million. But the following year, Disney the sleeping giant was fully awake and quickly set about stepping on Sullivan Bluth and their latest film. Disney’s The Little Mermaid beat out All Dogs Go To Heaven both critically and commercially. The Bluth film made just $26 million dollars in its US release, compared to Mermaid’s roughly $84 million. It eventually recovered through strong video sales, but the damage was done. Investor Goldcrest Films seemed to have lost faith in Sullivan Bluth’s ability to deliver a crowd-pleasing movie, judging from the number of test screenings and last minute changes their next film was subjected to. That film turned out to be Rock-A-Doodle, which had even less success with critics and audiences than All Dogs Go To Heaven did, forcing the studio to declare bankruptcy.

If it hadn’t been for Disney’s successful return to the animated fairy tales that had made the studio famous, would All Dogs Go To Heaven have been a box office hit? My guess is no. While sharing its release day with The Little Mermaid may have drawn audiences away, All Dogs Go To Heaven had plenty of problems of its own. It’s a confusing, unattractive mess of a film that marked the beginning of a downturn for Bluth’s movies in quality as well as financial viability.

The film gets off to a confusing start, as dachshund Itchy tries to break his “boss” and best friend Charlie out from behind a pipe in an underground tunnel for reasons not immediately clear. The dogs get shot at by unseen assailants in the course of their jailbreak from what turns out to be the city pound. The upbeat music identifies the scene as comedy, the first of several that will treat life and death as laughing matters in a way that never quite works. Then the scene shifts to a grounded boat on the Louisiana bayou in the year 1939. The time and place have very little bearing on the story, so the bit of text identifying them is largely useless. The boat serves as a canine casino, where the patrons are watching a literal rat race and betting on the outcome. The race ends, the few winners claim their meager steak earnings, and the dogs complain that they’re being ripped off. About five minutes in, Charlie and Itchy make their appearance at the club and the threads of plot are slowly tied together.

Charlie is part-owner of the casino. He was on “death row” before Itchy helped him break out, but now he’s back, to the delight of the club’s patrons and the dismay of Charlie’s partner Carface. Carface wants the club to himself, so he decides to get rid of Charlie, permanently. For some reason, he first makes a show of convincing Charlie that he is still a wanted dog and that the first place “they” will look for him is at the casino, so Charlie should take his share of the steaks and set up shop elsewhere. He then takes Charlie to Mardi Gras (one of those few references to the story’s Louisiana setting), gets him drunk, has him blindfolded, and hits him with a car. Sound confusing? It is. We have no idea why Charlie was on “death row” or who “they” are who might come looking for him. The fact that he was at the pound seems to suggest that he was picked up by the local dogcatcher, but why would humans look for Charlie at a dog betting parlor they are presumably unaware of? Charlie claims he was “framed” for whatever his crime was, but we never learn if this is true, who might have framed him, or why. And why does Carface go through all the trouble of giving Charlie a big sendoff when his plan all along is to kill him? Who is Carface trying to fool?


Anyway, Charlie’s death takes place offscreen and we just see the car fly off a pier and into the water. (This scene and Charlie's later nightmare were trimmed down to ensure a "G" rating for the film.) Charlie zooms through some effects animation and is deposited at Heaven’s door. Because Charlie is a dog, he is assumed to be a good and loyal creature and therefore gets a free pass into Heaven. Finding his afterlife completely boring, Charlie manages to keep the canine angel who shows him around Heaven distracted long enough to wind the watch that represents his life and return to the mortal world. In another bit of unnecessary complication, Charlie enters Heaven wearing another watch that Carface gave him as a parting gift. The only difference between the two watches is that one hangs from a red band and the other has a blue band. There is a moment where Charlie exchanges one watch for the other, but since little effort is made to call the audience’s attention to the gesture, the whole thing is just confusing.

Alive once more, Charlie hooks back up with Itchy and starts plotting to take down Carface. He figures that his ex-partner must be running some kind of scheme for the club to have done so well while Charlie was doing time and goes to investigate. Carface does indeed have an ace up his sleeve in the form of a little human girl named Anne-Marie who can talk to animals. (The dogs can only understand other dogs.) Carface has her ask one of the rats which rat will be winning the next race and uses that information to fix the odds. Seeing his opportunity to both ruin Carface and enrich himself, Charlie “rescues” Anne-Marie. He spends most of the remainder of the movie using her pretty much the same way Carface did while trying to convince her – and possibly himself – that he isn’t.


The trouble with Charlie is that he neither particularly likeable nor very interesting. He is a scoundrel. His biggest ambition is to have his own casino and put Carface out of business and he’s perfectly willing to toy with Anne-Marie’s hopes and dreams to get what he wants. That would all be fine if Charlie had some hook that him interesting or admirable in spite of his questionable morals. But Charlie is not smart or charming or even ruthless enough to be compelling. He spends most of his time using Anne-Marie and berating Itchy, his only real friend in the world. He is not so clever in manipulating Anne-Marie that his intelligence becomes an admirable trait. Rather than carefully stringing her along, Charlie only does anything nice for Anne-Marie when she is obviously miserable or outright threatening to leave. I had mistakenly remembered that Charlie “reads” her “Robin Hood” (actually a copy of “War and Peace” held upside-down) as a bedtime story as part of a plan to convince her that he – unlike Carface – will be using at least some of the profits from gambling with her help to aid the poor. But actually, the idea of giving the money to the needy is something Charlie comes up with on the fly when Anne-Marie accuses him of being just like Carface and it is Anne-Marie who makes the connection to Robin Hood.

Charlie’s goals are all short-lived and largely uninteresting. He wants to break out of the pound and within minutes, he’s free. He barely spends five minutes in Heaven before escaping back to Earth. With Anne-Marie to help him sneak into the various human gambling venues and cheat, he’s soon financially well off and the proud owner of Charlie’s Place. (I can’t figure out why Charlie needs the money, since we see Itchy building their new casino out of scrap cars and it’s established that dogs use steaks as currency.) His real problem is that he is a self-centered jerk and for most of the movie, he makes zero progress on that. Nearly an hour into the film, Anne-Marie finds her way to the home and family she has always longed for. Despite the fact that he already has his casino up and running, Charlie callously uses her affection for him to lure her away. With just over fifteen minutes left in the film, Charlie is still acting totally in his own self-interest, with no regard for what’s best for little Anne-Marie. Because Charlie remains completely selfish for so long, Charlie’s change of character is crammed in at the end of the film rather than revealed gradually over time and feels much less genuine for it.


Anne-Marie, unfortunately, is just another cloyingly cute little kid manufactured for maximum amounts of adorable. She looks a lot like a very young Snow White. She is an orphan whose one wish is to have a mommy and daddy of her own. She is less annoying than Edmond from Rock-A-Doodle, mainly because she doesn’t have a lisp and isn’t the film’s lead. But like Edmond, she is too generic to be credible as a real character and not a plot device.

What’s particularly disappointing about All Dogs Go To Heaven is how unattractive the films is. There are some attractive backgrounds with a good amount of detail, but much of the film feels strangely oversaturated, featuring weird and unappealing color choices. As with Rock-A-Doodle the animators’ talents at creating convincing weight and appealing movement are still evident. The effects animations are particularly nice, from the streaks of light and bubble that accompany Charlie on his speedy trip to the hereafter to the soft fog on the docks. But the character designs are mostly sub-par, ranging from blankly cute to outright ugly. The weird Technicolor puppies who show up halfway through the film feel more like something from a mediocre Saturday morning cartoon than characters for a feature. And then you have this, which is supposed to be a horse, in case you couldn’t tell:


The film is a musical and features about five songs; seven if you count the ones that play over the credits. Sadly, there’s not a good number in the bunch. None of the songs are memorable or at all important to the story. The only one that comes close is “You Can’t Keep A Good Dog Down,” which introduces Charlie. It has some entertaining lines, but is hurt by the mediocre singing of Burt Reynolds – the voice of Charlie.


Probably the worst song in the film is “What’s Mine Is Yours,” in which selfish lout Charlie extols the virtues of sharing to the colorful puppies as they fight over the pizza he’s brought them. The song by itself is bad enough, but what really pushes it over the edge is how little sense it takes for Charlie to be singing about how “the more you share, the more the sun’ll shine.” Is he trying to convince Anne-Marie that he really is the generous individual he pretends to be? Does he want to impress Flo, the dog who takes care of the puppies and is a possible love interest for Charlie? Do puppies just bring out the Barney in him? The movie seems completely oblivious to the irony of Charlie trying to teach anyone how to share what they’ve got. The only humor in the song comes from the pups, who completely forget the lesson once the song ends and pounce on the cake Charlie offers them. The scene feels like a late addition, as if someone felt that the film needed a blatantly moral moment to balance out all the gambling and cheating that fill out the rest of it.


Story is the Achilles heel of many of the Bluth films and that’s true here as well. While making no progress on transforming Charlie from a self-centered creep to the good and loyal creature a dog is supposed to be, the plot meanders all over the place and gets stuck at a few dead ends along the way. The most well known of these is the infamous “Let’s Make Music Together” number, thanks to the Nostalgia Chick using it as the source for the term “Big-Lipped Alligator Moment,” meaning a scene that has virtually no set-up, makes no sense in the context of the movie, and is never mentioned again by any of the characters once it’s over. It’s a bizarre sequence in which Charlie and Anne-Marie are captured by a tribe of primitive sewer rats who try to feed them to the previously mentioned big-lipped alligator. The alligator becomes taken with Charlie’s evidently melodious howl and decides to sing a duet with him instead of eating him. True to the definition, neither Charlie nor Anne-Marie ever mentions this bit of weirdness again. Granted the alligator reappears later to save Charlie from drowning, but that doesn’t excuse the utter clumsiness with which the earlier scene is jammed into the plot. A scene that confuses the audience and only makes sense when a later scene makes an aspect of it useful is just bad storytelling.

The Big-Lipped Alligator moment isn’t the only confusing moment in the film. Earlier on, Carface is about to send his flunky Killer to sleep with the piranhas as punishment for letting Anne-Marie escape and end up in Charlie’s paws. He only spares his life when Killer tells him that he has “a Flash Gordon thermo-atomic ray gun” which they could use to take out Charlie. But all the two dogs actually accomplish is shooting up a fruit stand. Charlie does appear to be hit a few times, but he’s fine, presumably thank to the watch. Why does Killer have a ray gun? Did ray guns exist in 1939 Louisiana? Why does Carface feel the need to use a special weapon to dispatch Charlie? What is the point of this plot thread?

(Author's Note: After writing this, I came across this article, which offers some explanation for the baffling "Flash Gordon thermo-atomic ray gun sequence. Originally, Carface and Killer were going to go after Charlie with a much less futuristic tommy gun. But partway through the film's production, there was a shooting at a California school in which automatic weapons were involved. Though they aren't mentioned as a specific influence on the changes to this scene, the need to get the film a "G' rating and the tragic death of Judith Barsi, the young actress who played Anne-Marie who was killed along with her parents in a murder-suicide, may have been factors in wanting to remove scenes of more realistic violence from the movie. So "tommy gun" was changed to "ray gun." It explains some of the thinking, but does not excuse the overall oddness and pointlessness of the scene.)

All through the movie, there is evidence of ideas that just haven’t been thought out well. Why does Anne-Marie go for shopping for the new dresses that cynical Charlie claims will make her more appealing to potential parents, only to spend the rest of the movie wearing her same old tattered clothes? Why bother to introduce the cute puppies and Flo and have a lengthy sequence in which Anne-Marie imagines life with new parents who adopt her, Flo, and all the puppies, and then leave their future completely unresolved? Why does Charlie still need Anne-Marie and her talents even after his casino opens? (The implication is that Charlie only uses Anne-Marie to cheat when gambling against other humans, unlike Carface who used her to cheat his own canine customers, though it’s never really clear.) How can Charlie understand the big-lipped alligator when he can’t understand any other non-canine creature in the film? Why do all the dogs in the city care enough about Charlie to rush to his aide when they hear he’s in trouble? Why do some dogs where clothes while others don’t?


Like The Secret of NIMH, All Dogs Go To Heaven has problems balancing its comedy and drama and making it all feel like one cohesive whole. The movie’s message is that the duration of your life is less important than the good you do with the time you have, and in that context, I guess it makes sense that so many of Charlie’s brushes with death are treated as comedy. But there’s a shadow over Charlie’s return to the land of the living. See, when Charlie left Heaven, he voided the free pass to the pearly gates that he got for being born a dog. He can’t get back into Heaven. In theory he could just keep winding the watch and live forever. But should the watch ever stop, Charlie will die. And if he does die and he can’t go to Heaven, there’s only one option left: Hell. And not a funny, cartoonish Hell full of punishments that only a dog would find horrifying. The Hell revealed in Charlie’s nightmare is a full-on fire and brimstone world of torment that ranks among Bluth’s scariest scenes. I’m not one to say that movies aimed at kids should be completely devoid of anything frightening. The dark edge in Bluth’s films is frequently one of the more interesting aspects of his work. And it too makes a degree of sense. If Charlie being unable to return to Heaven is to mean anything, there has to be a consequence. And since Charlie found Heaven boring, the only possible consequence left is the knowledge that if Charlie dies, he will end up in Hell. But put the comedy and the drama together, and it all falls apart. It just doesn’t make sense to ask the audience to laugh when Charlie almost dies while at the same time telling them that the afterlife awaiting him is one of eternal suffering.


Perhaps the worst failure of story, even worse than the Big-Lipped Alligator Moment, is the movie’s climax, which takes place in the sinking burning hull of Carface’s boat casino. It starts out well enough. The watch serves its narrative purpose, forcing Charlie to choose between retrieving it and saving his own life or rescuing the unconscious Anne-Marie from drowning. But then, instead of seeing the rescue of Anne-Marie through to the end, Charlie sets her on a wooden plank and pushes her towards a hole in the side of the boat that is surrounded by flames. As if to underline the precarious position he had left her in, Charlie yells “You can make it, kid!” after her. Did I mention that Anne-Marie is barely conscious at this point? So Charlie spends his final seconds of life not braving flames and waves to make sure Anne-Marie gets to safety, but diving after his watch, leaving Killer – of all possible characters - to steer Anne-Marie to shore where her future family is waiting. That’s it? That’s Charlie’s act of redemption? As with the Big-Lipped Alligator Moment, Killer’s ray gun, and the sharing song, it feels like someone with a little distance from the movie needed to come in, take a look at the story, and say “This is supposed to be Charlie’s big moment of truth, but you’ve got him shoving the kid out the door and going after the watch again. Maybe this would work better if he stayed with her longer, just long enough so that we know that he’s making sure she’s safe before he thinks about saving himself.”

All Dogs Go To Heaven is just problems on top of problems. It has a protagonist who is both unlikable and uninteresting, a plot that spends more time on pointless diversion than getting the main character from point A to point B, ugly character designs, and awful songs. It’s worth a watch only if you’re a die-hard Bluth fan or particularly interested in the history of U.S. theatrical animation. On its own merits, this movie is anything but heavenly.

All images in this article are copyright MGM/UA.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Half-Hour Commercials

Animated TV shows and toys have a long history together though not as long as you might think. Today, shows based on toy properties are quite plentiful. Flip through a couple of channels of kids’ programming and you’re bound to come across at least one series based on a toy line, a video game, a card game, or some other product available at your local toy store. Given how common such shows are now, it can be hard to believe that not too long ago, such shows did not exist in the U.S. In fact, they were pretty much against the law.

The concerns about program length commercials started around 1969. Toy company Mattel had started promoting its miniature car toyline Hot Wheels with a Saturday morning cartoon. This move prompted Topper Toys, one of Mattel’s competitors to complain to the FCC that the show gave Mattel an unfair advantage and was really just a “half-hour commercial” for Mattel’s product. The FCC agreed with Topper’s claims and eventually adopted a rather vague set of guidelines for what constituted a program length commercial. Commercial programs were defined as those where the goal of selling the sponsoring company’s product took precedence over either entertaining or informing the public. These shows were therefore counted as part of the station’s commercial time, which had to be limited to a certain amount of time per hour.

The FCC’s change in policy regarding shows based on products came about in the 1980s. The Reagan administration favored deregulation in various sectors of the economy, including television. Under Reagan, the FCC took less of a role in insuring that television served the public interest over commercial interests. Annual specials based on the Strawberry Shortcake line of dolls began running in 1980 and the syndicated series He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, featuring the characters from Mattel’s action figure line, debuted in 1983. By the middle of the decade, the FCC had revisited its previous decision on commercial programs and removed their previous restrictions on such shows.

The debate over the effects of the deregulation of children’s television programming is something I will leave to the experts in that field. Suffice to say, the worries about shows aimed at children based on products marketed to children have not gone away. Again, I am not an expert in advertising, child psychology, or any other field that would allow me to talk knowledgeably about the issues on both sides of this ongoing debate. What I am is an animation fan and what bothers me is the argument from groups concerned about the amount of advertising children are exposed to that these shows really are nothing more than “half-hour commercials” and are devoid of merit because of it.

The problem with this line of thinking can be seen even in the FCC’s original attempts to define what a program length commercial is. While it may sound like an easy distinction, it is actually pretty difficult to determine whether a show’s primary goal is to sell product, mainly because television shows are seldom created with a single, primary goal in mind. The modern television show has to accomplish a lot more than just entertaining or informing the viewers. Between the need to convince a production company to make the show in the first place, the need to court networks, and the need to woo advertisers, a show needs to convince any number of people of its merits beyond its intended audience. Even the public broadcasting shows aimed at children must always strike a balance between entertaining and educating their young viewers. It is impossible to educate children through television if they don’t enjoy the show enough to watch it. The same is true of shows that are designed in part to advertise a product. If the kids don’t enjoy the show, the advertising opportunity is lost. So how do you determine whether one goal trumps the other, whether entertainment or advertising is the primary objective? He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was clearly entertaining to the children it was aimed at and the series has fans to this day. Does being based on a line of toys diminish its value as entertainment?


Certainly there have been TV series that do little beyond selling the product they are based on, where character and plot are completely subservient to showcasing the toys available for purchase. But at the same time, there are shows that are much more than overlong advertisements. Beast Wars: Transformers is one such show. The second part of the title leaves little doubt of its connection to the world of toys. Beast Wars was created to promote the new incarnation of toy company Hasbro’s line of transforming robot figures of the same name. Right from the start, selling toys was part of this show’s mission. It could easily be defined as another half-hour commercial, except that it’s actually really good. Over the course of its three season run, Beast Wars entertained its faithful viewers with complex characters, exciting and rich plotlines that played out over multiple episodes, and what at the time was top notch computer animation for television. (The show was among the earliest computer animated series produced for TV. Mainframe Entertainment - now known as Rainmaker Entertainment, the studio that created the first completely computer animated TV series ReBoot, handled the animation.) The heroes had genuine flaws and the villains were strong and smart enough to be a credible threat. Since computer animation was expensive at the time, the cast was kept small, allowing the show’s writers to focus on real character development rather than trying to cram in every single figure from the toyline. While the show did help to sell toys, it also accomplished much more by telling good stories, seldom talking down to its intended audience, and introducing original concepts and even characters that served the show rather than just reflecting the product.

Sometime in the 1990s, a toy company approached an animation studio. They were planning to produce a line of model spaceships and wanted an animated series to base their models on. The show could be anything the studio wanted, but it had to include spaceships. Sounds like the formula for another half-hour commercial, right? Well, only if you would call Cowboy Bebop a half-hour commercial.


Yup, that’s right. This smart, sophisticated, and extremely popular anime was born partly from Japanese toymaker Bandai asking anime studio Sunrise to create a show that Bandai could use to kick off their model spaceship line. Bandai took a very hands-off approach to the show beyond insisting on the presence of the spaceships, which are an important part of the show, but not nearly as central as the characters. The show was a big success in both Japan and international markets. This is a case where the show has eclipsed to product it was meant to sell, to the point where virtually no one thinks of Cowboy Bebop as a series created to pitch model kits.

The question posed by product-based TV series is less “Can they have value beyond advertising the product?” than “Could series of equal quality be created without being based on existing product?” In an ideal world, he answer would be “yes.” The “secret ingredient” that makes a good product-based TV show good is not the toy concept, but the talented people who can take that concept, flesh it out, and make it capable of supporting seasons’ worth of stories. A crew that produces a great toy-based series should be able to do just as well – if not even better – with a completely original concept. But children’s television is a business. Having another company helping to finance the production of an animated series can look like a pretty good deal to the animation studio. On top of that, networks tend to look for shows and concepts that have already enjoyed success or gained a following in one medium or another. Take another spin through the channels and count how many of the shows are based on anything pre-existing: a movie, a comic, a book, an older TV series. Shows based on original ideas still do happen, but shows based on concepts proven successful are still seen as a safer bet. With toy-based shows, the benefits can go both ways: kids who like the show will buy the toys and kids who are excited about the toys will want to watch the show.

I do believe that a show’s connection to a product for children is something parents should be aware of when looking at what their kids are watching. But it is a factor in determining the value of a show, not the only one. A show that is based on a toyline is not automatically going to be garbage, just as an original concept is no guarantee that a show will be good. Whatever its origins, a good animated series can be genuinely entertaining and even educate its audience about what elements make a compelling story at the very least. Toy-based TV shows might be trying to sell you something, but the best of them are way more than half-hour commercials.

DISCLOSURE: The author’s husband is an employee of the toy company Hasbro. No, he can’t get you free toys, get a particular toy made for you, or tell you what toys are going to be made. So don’t ask.

All images are copyright their respective owners.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Todd Alcott on Animation

If you've been here since the beginning, you know that part of my inspiration for starting this blog was Todd Alcott's blog What Does The Protagonist Want?. You may also remember that I said I would post about it here when he was writing about animation. Well, he is, so I am.

The very smart and very funny Adult Swim series The Venture Bros. is back with its fourth season. Todd has been posting his thoughts on episodes of the show's previous seasons and is now tackling the new ones. Check out his analysis of the first episode.

As for my own writing, I think I'm going to change the new post day to Tuesday. I don't tend to get much writing done over the weekend, so the extra weekday before I have to post a new article will be helpful. I'll be back tomorrow with something new for you to read.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Upcoming Animation - Despicable Me

Hot on the heels of the first full length trailer for How To Train Your Dragon comes the new trailer for Universal's Despicable Me. I haven't found an embedable version of this one yet, so check it out here.


Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Upcoming Animation - How To Train Your Dragon

Another new trailer for an upcoming animated feature film has just hit the internet. This one is for DreamWorks Animation's latest movie: How To Train Your Dragon. A lot of the excitement about this film is based on the fact that it's directed by Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, the directing team responsible for Disney's Lilo and Stitch. Since Sanders left Disney after being removed as the director of the film that eventually became Bolt, animation fans have been eager to see what he and his writing and directing partner would come up with next. And now, we get our first taste.

Once again, I want to know what you think. Are you looking forward to this movie or does it leave you cold? Is Disney going to regret losing Sanders and Be Blois? Do you see success on the horizaon for DreamWorks, or failure?

Monday, November 2, 2009

Kung Fu Panda - DreamWorks' Turning Point?


Prior a week ago, I had never seen Kung Fu Panda.

I know, I know. It’s not something I’m proud of. I could say that previous DreamWorks animated films – particularly Shrek – hadn’t impressed me or that the trailers made it look like little more than “fat guy does martial arts.” But I had the positive reviews of numerous critics and animation fans to go on, plus the fact that the film swept the 2008 Annie Awards. So why did it take me so long to actually watch the movie? I can only chalk it up to my own bad judgment. Because not only was I missing out on a good animated movie, I was missing what DreamWorks Animation really had to offer.


The basic plot of Kung Fu Panda is a classic “unlikely hero” story. Po, the panda of the film’s title, does not start out as a martial arts master. He’s more of a fanboy. He knows all the stories of the great warriors, has all the posters on his bedroom walls, collects the action figures, and dreams of being a kung fu master. But he has neither the training nor the physique to make his dream anything more than that. It seems that Po’s fate will be to take over the noodle restaurant run by his father, a character so different from Po that he is literally another species. But Po’s life is changed forever when he is chosen to become the next Dragon Warrior, a legendary hero who will protect the valley from a coming threat.

What keeps the audience sympathetic to Po is the fact that he realizes that he is not cut out to be a master of kung fu. It may be his dream, but he has no delusions of greatness, no secret belief that he really could be the great warrior he wishes he was if someone just gave him the chance. As the film gets underway, all Po wants is to see his heroes, the Furious Five, in action and watch one of them get picked to be the Dragon Warrior. He ends up winning the title himself completely by accident. It’s not an honor sought out or wants. He fully understands that he is out of his league and that the Five and Master Shifu – who is charged with training Po – don’t want him around. As he later confesses, Po stays not out of some belief that he has what it takes to be the Dragon Warrior, but because he hopes that Master Shifu can mold him into something better than what he is now, something even the slightest bit closer to the great hero Po longs to be. Because Po is so acutely aware of his own inadequacies, he remains likeable as he tries to live up to these new expectations of him and his own dreams.


Fans of martial arts movies will find a lot of familiar material inn Kung Fu Panda. There’s the strict teacher, his former prize pupil who turned to evil, the ancient, wise master whose passing force the other characters to step up and become heroes, an unconventional style of training, and so on. What’s impressive is how the film keeps these staples of the genre from feeling like clichés by giving them a specificity driven by the characters themselves. For example, Tai Lung was not merely Shifu’s best student before his lust for power drove him to turn against Shifu and the villagers; he was also Shifu’s adopted son. Shifu was devastated by Tai Lung’s betrayal and eventual imprisonment, which explains why he is now such a harsh and unforgiving teacher. That in turn sets up for Shifu’s evolving relationship with Po. In finding an effective method to teach Po kung fu, Shifu rediscovers the joy of teaching and truly believing in his student.

The story also manages to avoid several clichés. Though Po’s father doesn’t completely understand Po’s love of kung fu, there is not subplot where Po has to earn his father’s respect or convince him that kung fu is as worthwhile a pursuit as noodles. Additionally, Po is not an incompetent cook. He may not be a great waiter (he can barely fit between the tables), but his homemade soup impresses even the Furious Five. Po could have been a good cook, even a great one, but he isn’t passionate about noodles the way he is about kung fu. By showing that Po is capable at something, the story avoids getting distracted by a secondary thread about Po needing to prove that he can become accomplished at anything and is able to focus on Po following his dream. I was pleasantly surprised that the film did not force a romance between Po and Tigress of the Furious Five. She is the character most irritated by his presence in the beginning and comes to respect him in the end, but that’s it. After so many animated films that insist on including a love story regardless of whether the film really needs one, it’s quite refreshing to see a movie that doesn’t have that requirement.


Even the jokes about Po’s weight are actually treated with some degree of restraint. Yes, the film makes it clear that Po is a big, fat panda, a nervous eater by his own admission. And yes, Master Shifu eventually realizes that the best way to teach Po kung fu is to use food. But many of the jokes at Po’s expense come from characters who are actively trying to be mean to him. Shifu’s use of food in Po’s training is successful not because Po is completely obsessed with food to the point of insanity, but because food give him a distraction that keeps him from overthinking what he’s doing. When Po is finally able to grab a dumpling from him master after a length sparring match, Po tosses his prize back to Shifu and says with a smile “I’m not hungry.” This movie represent a breakthrough for DreamWorks Animation in part because of the excellent balance between humor and drama and because the humor comes mainly from the characters and their situations rather than easy parodies, pop culture references, and fart jokes.

The character animation and design strikes me as a huge step up from the previous DreamWorks films I have seen. Instead of trying to create completely realistic characters, Kung Fu Panda embraces a more stylized cartoony aesthetic for its cast. The designs are very appealing, both distinct from one another and stylisticly similar. No viewer would ever confuse Po with Tigress or Monkey or Tai Lung, yet they all still feel like they come from the same world, belong in the same movie. The believability of a character like Po comes partly from his convincing fur texture and the well render cloth of his pants, but owes more to the character touches in his animation that make him feel like a real individual. This includes everything from the more obvious aspects of the character: his exhausted panting and bent forward catching his breath posture after climbing the numerous steps to the Jade Palace or the way his ample flab rolls around as he moves, to smaller moments: a subtle change of expression or the way he wipes his hand off on his chest. Since the characters are various kinds of animals, they are obviously going to move in very different ways, which helps to keep the film’s many fight scenes entertaining. Where the movie excels is in making the characters’ actions and movements reflect not just what kind of animals they are, but what kind of individuals they are.


The film’s overall look is very pleasing to the eye. The environments set us firmly in the semi-mythical China of martial arts films, with its sweeping landscapes, mountaintops rising out of the mists, and distinctive architecture. Color and lighting support the mood of each scene. Every scene is built on solid principles of design and storytelling that make it greatly satisfying to watch.

Kung Fu Panda does not break any new ground for animation. It is not the first movie to star anthropomorphic animals and animated them well, nor is it likely to be the last. Few viewers will be truly surprised to find out that Po does eventually save the day. If any new computer animation techniques were invented for this film, the effect is too subtle for most filmgoers – me included – to notice. What Kung Fu Panda does show is how effective it can be to simply tell a good story with strong animation and engaging characters. The movie strikes the balance between light comedy and meaningful, serious moments that had previously eluded DreamWorks. It presents its important concepts and themes clearly, but avoids beating the audience over the head with them. It neither gets lost in its own self importance, nor mocks itself to the point where viewers feel distanced from the characters and story. In short, it is a solid, entertaining film, a kind that I hope DreamWorks will continue to make.

All images in this article are copyright Dreamworks.