Monday, June 1, 2015

An Elegy for Dirt

The process of animation today is faster, more precise and more efficient than it's ever been before. The reason for that, of course, is computers.
"Shall we make a cartoon?"
I'm not talking about CG animation, with its 3D-modelled characters and environments (as in the Pixar and DreamWorks stuff that's dominated the box office since 1995). I'm talking about the traditional, hand-drawn animation seen almost exclusively on TV these days. That, too, is now done inside computers.

Today's animators draw on touch-sensitive screens, their markings captured as digital information. Color is added the same way. The editing, the sound mixing, etc., is all done using computers. The finished product is rendered as a digital file. It's broadcast as a digital signal. And finally, your digital television decodes and displays it for you. At no point has anything you're seeing been exposed to the Earth's atmosphere.

And it looks amazing! Cartoons have never looked better than they do using modern methods - all pure, flawless, saturated colors in eye-popping HD.
But it's all a little too perfect, isn't it?

Even as a kid, I always liked seeing the seams in the stuff I was watching. Not too much, of course. But the occasional imperfection in a TV show or movie is a good reminder of how amazing it is that we can make moving pictures. In a way, this was the beginning of my film education.

One of the first things I picked up on in cartoons was the difference between an object painted on the background versus an object that was about to start moving. You could tell, say, what door was going to open, or what item was going to fall off a shelf, because it looked slightly different than everything else around it.

The tiniest mismatch of paint color, or the use of different material for foreground cels versus background cels (causing the paint to dry differently), or reduced detail in the object that's going to be animated leads to items standing out visually before they actually start moving.
Which plank is Odie going to break?
Where is Uncle Scrooge going to emerge?

Another thing I noticed as a kid was cel shadows. Have you ever noticed a small drop shadow ghosting the contours of a cartoon character? (Not to be confused with shading and shadows that animators intentionally add for mood, style, or dimensionality.) These shadows occur when a cel is slightly raised above the background. Because of the small scale of animation, these shadows are microscopic in real life but are much more noticeable on your TV screen.
And then, of course, there's just plain dirt. Specks of dust or hair that inadvertently get trapped in between or on top of cels during the animation process. Or sometimes in the gate of film cameras, back when we used film. Not to mention that every once in a while the film itself could get scratched.
Of course, the things I'm describing are things that animators always tried to avoid. And sure, you want to do your best to make your show look as great as possible. But little flaws are bound to get through, and I always enjoyed catching them. It humanized the whole process, helped me appreciate the handcrafted nature of it.

But that's all gone now. And I miss it.

Look, I'm no Luddite. As I said before, cartoons look great now. The technology for making cartoons has to evolve, has to progress. That's the natural course of things, and it's good.

But it's a bit odd that there's literally nothing physical about cartoons anymore. There's nothing that anyone can pick up and hold and examine and appreciate.

As a birthday gift this year, I got a production cel from an episode of "The Simpsons" that's 25 years old! That's as good as gold for someone who's a hardcore fan of classic "Simpsons" episodes, as well as animation as a medium.

Today's 10-year-olds won't be able to collect production cels from "Adventure Time" or "Gravity Falls" 25 years from now, because no such thing exists.

Of course, all is not lost. There will always be concept sketches, production artwork, things like that. As long as spontaneous creativity exists in the world, precious artifacts will continue to be made.

It's just different now. And I really like the way my "Simpsons" cel looks on my wall.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Best. Gift. Ever.

As of my birthday this year, I'm the proud owner of a piece of television history!
This is an animation cel from "The Simpsons'" first-ever "Treehouse of Horrors" segment, "Bad Dream House." The segment was written by John Swartzwelder and directed by Wes Archer.

Click here to see the scene where this cel was used.

If you find yourself not really caring, it's completely understandable. I get it. When all is said and done, the only thing that matters is the finished episode and your enjoyment of it.
But to me, it's almost unbelievable that I can possess this item, this thing that was an important piece of a classic episode of one of my all-time favorite TV shows. This is not a reproduction. An animator drew directly onto this cel. A colorist painted it. A camera took a picture of it -- of this exact thing -- and this is what I saw on TV all the way back when I was 10 years old! And again in reruns. And then again on DVD.

This one little cel -- just one element within one/twenty-fourth of one second of a TV show -- has been a part of my life for 25 years!

That's really cool to me.

A big THANK YOU goes out to Helby and my family for conspiring to get me this.

Click here to view the full episode (requires a cable subscription).

And here's Bart receiving a much less impressive "Itchy & Scratchy" cel:

Monday, April 27, 2015

Hollywood Babylon

It should come as a surprise to no one that I'm somewhat obsessed with TV and movies, and am therefore always up for a good story about Hollywood. I've recently found myself digging into several excellent Hollywood stories -- some factual, some fictional. This is one I highly recommend.


The first time I saw a Kenneth Anger film was early on in film school. When it was over and the lights came up in the screening room, a classmate yelled out from a few rows up: "So is our textbook gonna be 'Hollywood Babylon'?"

"Hollywood Babylon." That title sounded familiar, but I knew nothing about it.

Turns out that's the perfect way to find out about "Hollywood Babylon." Slowly. Vaguely. Talked about in questions rather than statements. Nobody knowing exactly what it's supposed to be, or where it came from, or why. It becomes mythic in your mind.

Kenneth AngerThe legend grew from there. It was a book that Anger had written. It was supposedly deplorable. A scandal rag. A scummy, bottom-feeding, rumor-mongering pile of trash rife with inaccuracies, so why would you even want to read it?

According to lore, it had been banned at one point. So how could you not want to read it?

But probably the biggest reason it commanded my interest was its inaccessibility. I couldn't find it anywhere! For several years, it was the first thing I'd look for in any bookstore I entered. I'd flip through the dusty card catalogues of neglected libraries. I'd check the Harlequin-riddled basement shelves of great-aunts. Where was this thing? Was it even real?

As time went by, it started to fade from my mind. Eventually, I stopped looking for it altogether. It was a dead subject.

All of that changed, however, on a recent re-watching of Wonder Boys. James Leer, the character played by Tobey Maguire, is an aspiring novelist obsessed with classic Hollywood. In one scene, his college professor (Michael Douglas) marvels at all the overdue library books James keeps in his room. Among the stack: "Hollywood Babylon."

The quest for that book came rushing back to my mind, so I decided to give it one last try. Would I finally be able to find it?

Yeah. Real easy. Turns out it's available for sale everywhere now. You can't stop people from trying to sell you that book.

So after 15 years of on-again/off-again hunting, I finally have a copy. And how is it?

Scummy. Bottom-feeding. A rumor-mongering pile of trash. Factually suspect.

And I love it.

Bow, Gilbert, Thomas, Arbuckle
First of all, Anger's writing is a guilty joy - breezy, crisp, biting, catty, and witty; essentially what I'd expect from the guy who made this.

Second... I just plain love this stuff, and I don't know why. I've always loved a good Hollywood story. I've never even seen a single Fatty Arbuckle film (which I could probably change just by going to YouTube right now); but the dude did some wild living, and I don't need to be a fan to want to know all about that.

The fact that much, if not most, if not all of "Hollywood Babylon" is inaccurate doesn't bother me. Even if these stories aren't true, they still represent a certain reality: the real rumors and gossip that the "film colony" (as Anger likes to refer to it) was spreading about itself at the time. That has value. It helps you get a fuller picture of What It Was Like Back Then. Fatty Arbuckle might have been cleared of any wrongdoing; but if you'd been having drinks with Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd while Arbuckle was on trial, this is what they would've told you they'd heard.

I'm very happy to have finally had the chance to read this thing. I only wish that, instead of buying a fresh new print, I could have found an old, crinkled, mildew-splotched copy up in some attic or at a garage sale. I'm thinking I'll fling my copy to the back of the garage and forget about it. To whoever finds it at some unknown point in the future: You're welcome.