Tuesday, December 23, 2008

RAMBLING THOUGHTS ABOUT CURMUDGEONS AND CHRISTMAS


Boy, there sure are a lot of curmudgeons (above) out there! The whole idea of Christmas infuriates them!



Curmudgeons are organizing (above)! One of my favorite Christmas pastimes used to be needling curmudgeons and trying to make them feel guilty, but It's getting hard to do that now. They're fighting back. I read in a magazine that they even wear buttons with sayings like, "I'm not cheap, I'm principled!"



They circulate weird Christmas cards with pictures of armed animals, who intend to shoot down Santa.



Geez, poor Santa's going to have a rough time getting through this year.



Well, I'm going to celebrate Christmas just as I always do: with food, presents, and a cultivated air of smug moral superiority that'll make my curmudgeon friends grind their teeth.

Today I considered making a curmudgeon Christmas tree as a gift for these friends. It would be an artificial tree painted black with ornaments consisting of dead fish or pictures of Scrooge kicking orphans. Aaaargh! It's too late. Maybe next year!



I have a Santa Claus costume in the closet. Let me tell you, as soon as you put that thing on, you become a chick magnate!



I think I'll experiment this Christmas. Maybe I'll try a bottomless tree (above).



No, I need something more hip than that.



This (above) one's too hip...too much trouble.



Ah, now THIS (above) is a do-able hip tree! Tinker toys make great trees!



While I was looking for a picture of a Tinkertoy tree, I stumbled on this photo(above). Believe it or not, this (above) is Wilbur and Orville Wright's Christmas tree, dating from 1900, only a few years before the famous flight. The tree is the kind of tall, sparse, fragrant evergreen that was popular up until recent times when the full, bushy look took over. Look at the presents! I notice that bundles are more common than boxes, and the wrappings are plain...no fancy wrapping paper!



Here's (above) a detail of the picture above. Click to enlarge. I think I see a small rifle back there, and some doll house furniture and a tiny tea set. Are there candles on the tree? I can't see.



Before long I stumbled on another tree picture (above), this one from the 30s. This one looks like the kind my dad said he played under when he was a kid. Notice the big, metal electric trains with bridges and out-of-scale little houses and fences. The big trains were great because they were heavy and didn't jump off off the tracks all the time like the light ones do now. You could also cram a lot of toy soldiers into them. Then as now, Christmas and war toys just naturally went together.

I think the electric lights on the tree were the big bulb kind that are only used for outdoor lighting now. If there's tinsel, it's probably the vertical icicle variety. I like modern Christmas trees. They're thick and bushy the way artists like to draw them. They're not fragrant, which is a shame, but they do look friendly and cozy, and they work well with small indoor lights.



Well, enough goofing off! It's time to get back to cleaning the house for Christmas... but don't go yet! I have presents for everybody! I have to warn you that these are pretty primitive presents...actually, downright lame is what they are. They're tricks for fooling little kids! Watch the videos then find a kid and try them out!






OK, I warned you that these were going to be lame tricks!






A long time ago I pulled both these Penn & Teller tricks on my kids and they just about fell down and worshipped me as a white god. Of course they were at the age when I could wow them by making the supermarket door open just by waving my hand and walking in. Gee, kids sure are gullible!

MERRY CHRISTMAS EVERYBODY!!!!! See you on the 27th!


BTW: I got a Love Nerds submission from Jennifer, which I'll post right now!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

MY FAVORITE CHRISTMAS PICTURE BOOK


I may have written about this before, I'm not sure. Oh well, if I did I think you'll find the subject worth returning to. This is my family's favorite Christmas picture book: "Santa Claus and His Elves," written and illustrated by a Finnish author, Mauri Kunnas.


My kids like the story; me, I like the pictures of the wooden furniture.  Check out this kid's desk (click to enlarge). I love the proportions: wide and low with a beautiful blue stain on what's probably pine wood. Pine is an under-rated wood, though in real life I'd prefer a heavier wood (or maybe a thicker slab of pine) for the top. The bookshelf, bed and rug are also worth looking at. They're simple and elegant, very cozy, and the shapes and volumes work together very nicely. In real life this would make a great kids or guest room.




More of that stained wood again (above). Is stain really a practical preservative? It sure looks nice. I like the way the elves live in such close proximity, yet seem to have no trouble getting along. This book is a Utopian vision showing craftsman who all like to live and work together.
 


Here's (above) a detail from a long picture showing the elves eating dinner at the end of a long work day. That stove/hearth is beautiful!

 


You'd think yellow-stained furniture (above) would be too bright, but I'll bet in real life this muted yellow would work just fine.



Continuing on a Christmas theme, here's (above) The Nativity by Bell Telephone and the Beaton Marionettes. I saw this every year when I was growing up, and it has great sentimental value for me. One reason I like it, is because it's so completely earnest. I've seen lots of biblical movies and TV specials, and none presented the story as simply and intelligently as it's done here. 



This (above) also has importance for me because it's where I picked up my love of the human speaking voice. I got it when I was a kid from listening to Alexander Scourby's narration of this very film. Thanks to him I love to hear novels, plays, poetry, essays etc. read by first-rate readers. He also did the narration for the marionette version of "The Night Before Christmas" below.



Once again, Scourby hits it out of the park! 



Thursday, December 18, 2008

PULPS IN OUR FUTURE?


If another Great Depression is in our future, what kind of media will the public demand? My guess is something flamboyant and cathartic, something that'll focus our attention on other people's problems rather than our own...maybe the same kind of story that caught on in the last depression, maybe something gruesome and stylized with lots of action, something like...like the pulps!



If that's the case, then this crisis has a silver lining. The pulps were great! The covers alone were worth the price, and the writing was sometimes surprisingly good. Even the names of the stories were great: how do you like (above)"The Mole Men Want Your Eyes"?



Here's (below) an excerpt from a gangster story. An odd man walks into a diner and has a cup of coffee. When it's time to go...

He stood up unsteadily while his right hand
went to his pocket and came out clutching a dime.
He spun it on the marble counter in the direction of
the pockmarked waiter.
“It’s all I have,” he said sort of cheerfully. “But
I won’t be needing more where I’m going,” he
added.
Then he turned about and faced the front, drew
in a deep breath, threw out his chest, set his mouth
in a grim, thin line and made for the door with eyes
fixed straight ahead.
“Good-by,” he said, as he strode out into the
darkness of the deserted street, still erect, still with
perfect control.
“Good-by,” the waiter repeated dazedly, simply
because he could think of nothing better to say.

HE cold sweat beads stood out lividly on the
Kid’s pasty forehead now. His teeth crunched
and his knees began to tremble just as he stepped
over the threshold and down the single step to the
sidewalk.
The waiter turned his head away and closed his
eyes.
Rat a-tat-tat! Trr-r-r-r-r-r!
A screaming fusillade of sub-machine-gun slugs
splattered against the brick front of the Coffee Pot,
ricocheted off the walls and crashed the plate glass
windows with shattering impact.


Black Mask (above) was for pulp readers with a literary bent.



Here's (below) a story about the Yellow Peril, something that pulps were obsessed with. Here a female Chinese torturer is taken by surprise when the soldier of fortune manages to slip out of his restraints:

The torture-woman backed away, her features
suddenly pale. Shevlin sprang at her. She leaped
backward—
Leaped backward, and crashed full against the vat
of molten lead! It overturned on its stand. The half-
caste woman shrieked in sudden agony as the liquid,
white-hot metal cascaded over the sides of the tottering
vat and ate into her yellow flesh.... She swayed,
staggered, grasped at the sides of the vat to steady
herself. Then, as she toppled to the floor, she pulled
the huge pot of molten metal crashing over on her.
Bubbling molten lead streamed thickly over the
woman’s unclad body in a fiery Niagara of death!
But Tate Shevlin was not looking. He had flung
himself toward the rack upon which the Golden Girl
was bound. Now he slashed at her bonds with his knife.
The leather thongs parted. He started to lift her—
“One more move and I’ll shoot you where you
stand, dog!” a harsh voice snarled from the doorway.
Shevlin whirled—and stared into the muzzle of an
automatic in the hands of General Wu Shang!




Sometimes even the manly adventure pulps ran humorous stories (below):

What a mess for a guy like him to get in, he
thought to himself as he peered at the faint
outlines of the girls’ almost totally unclothed
bodies. Three girls! And he alone with them!
But it wasn’t his fault. The night before
when the gambling ship on which Tuffy worked
as deckhand had been raided by government
officials off the coast of California, he had
suddenly found himself pushed into the boat
with the three girls and told to stay out of sight
while the raid was on.
For an hour they had crouched in silence a
few feet away from the ship. Then, before their
startled eyes, the boat had pulled up anchor and
slipped off into the darkness. They had been
forgotten or deserted, one of the two. It didn’t
matter which.
And here they were, Tuffy Scott, with a
black stubble of beard on his roughly handsome
face, and three blonde girls in dance outfits
consisting of tiny red silk panties.

You have to like men. We're such simple creatures. Give us a story with three naked women on a raft with one man and we're happy. 



Men like weird anamalies too. Here's a paragraph from a story (below) about a murderous bag lady. She decides to bump off another bag lady who's carrying her hard-won life savings in the lining of her coat. In the shadows of a big city alley the two fight it out. Here's (below) how the author describes the motivation of the murderer:

"Annie wanted that money! She was determined
to have it, no matter what the cost. She vaguely
realized she was young no longer. Being ugly in the
bargain made it difficult to make the man she loved
notice her, not to talk of his falling for her. She was
crazy about Joe Thompson who hung around Mick’s
Poolroom Parlor all the time. There was only one
way to make that guy and keep him . . . with money!
If there was enough of it, who knows? He might
even get to marry her. She’d hook him, one way or
the other. All she needed was money and a couple of
gladrags."




Here's (above) a scene I'd love to do in animation: A robotic salt-shaker chicken  runs off with a girl, and is pursued by futuristic motorcycle police across a golf course...the audience would love it! 






Tuesday, December 16, 2008

CAN THEATER COMPETE WITH FILM?


Since stage plays seem to look better on film, I sometimes wonder if I'm going to see the end of live theater in my lifetime. Film has so many assets that theater doesn't have: terrific sound and lighting, and the ability to enhance the story with cuts, tracking shots and close-ups. Live theater just can't compete. It's sad to think that even stories that were written exclusively for the stage seem to play better on the screen.

Here's (above) a scene from the film version of Sherwood Anderson's play, "The Bad Seed." Below is a clip from the same part of the play, filmed off the live stage. See which you prefer.



Boy, there's no comparison is there? Even making allowance for the difference in actors and the too sensitive camcorder mics, the theater version (above) just can't keep up. The sound on a live stage is too scattered, too full of echos to compete with film sound. And modern stages are often too wide. Maybe that allows the theater to put in more seats, but it sure hurts the play. The actors feel they have to use the space since it's there, and doing that forces them to take long hikes from one side of the stage to the other. It's so unnatural.



So what can be done? The space problem is easy to solve: build smaller stages. Have fewer seats in the auditorium. Make the theater experience more intimate. Architects will hate this, because long, sweeping stages are a treat for the eye, but they hinder what's playing on the stage, so they really need to go.

The sound problem is more difficult. Obviously electronic enhancement is a good idea if it's understated, but how to you compete with film where the sound is positively beautiful sometimes? Good acoustics help, but only high-end theaters can afford it. What's the answer? Can live theater ever compete with film? I don't know, but I'll take a stab at an answer.



Let's look at what live theater does better. If you've ever watched live ballet from good seats you know that live classical dance beats film dance hands down. The thumps on the floorboards, the sweat on the dancers, etc. actually gives the dancers more presence. There's a heightened sense of vulnerability and risk that you don't get in film. Magic looks a hundred times better live, and so does burlesque. I've only seen one classic burlesque show in my whole life, but it was unforgettable. Based on the imitation live performance in the beginning of Olivier's Henry V, I imagine that Shakespeare can work as good live if you have the right actors. 







Not only that, but no film projection theater I've ever seen can match the beauty of the stage theater. You don't have to go to the Paris Opera to see beautiful stage settings, even a tiny stage theater like the one in the Golden Horseshoe Saloon in Disneyland L.A. beats most of what you're likely to see in movie houses, even in the best restored theaters.



One of the best times I've ever had in live theater occurred in a tiny, cheapo lunch theater in Soho in London. I sat there in a cramped space among other tables eating a cheap bangers and mash lunch, and I wondered where the stage was. Suddenly the lights dimmed and from behind a curtain came an earnest-looking actor shouting lines from Pinter or someone like that. It was a one act, one-man play, and he pulled it off beautifully, even though he had to brush the tables to do it. He didn't seem to mind if we ate while he was talking. It was magical! Only a few movie experiences I've had could match it, and I don't even like Pinter.

I'll bet someone more familiar with live theater than I am could inventory a lot of theater effects that could beat the same thing on film. In my opinion theater needs to concentrate on areas where it can emphasize its strengths. I don't mean theater should feature only dancing magic burlesque shows that you can watch while eating fries...I had in mind something more like...well, you know what I mean.

-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=--=--==

I should end here, but I can't resist a quick digression to other topics:



Thanks to Gabe Swaar, ace artist and creator of Dumm Comics, for this Claymation short by Will Vinton. Gabe says Will makes the kind of expressions I make, only he makes them in clay. He says the bell with all the weird expressions even looks like me! It's a co-incidence I'm sure, but one worth seeing if you're familiar with the kind of stuff I do. Check it out!



I'll also mention that Charles Brubaker just posted an interview with me on his "Baker's Baked" blog. Charles has lots of interviews with print cartoonists on there, and he manages to ask interesting questions. He got me to talk about outsourcing and what it was like to be in the studio when Nick took Ren & Stimpy away. Take a look!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

CLAMPETT'S "OLD GRAY HARE"


A quick disclaimer: every shot and clip here was stolen from John K's blog, the 12/8/08 installment of "John K Stuff. " John delivered a marvelous analysis of this scene from "The Old Gray Hare," which I won't attempt to improve on.  To tell the truth, I have no idea what I want to say about this animation, I'm only writing because it's one of my all-time favorite Clampett scenes, and I can't let the occasion of seeing it discussed go without comment.

http://www.cartoonthrills.org/blog/Clampett/45OldGrayHare/bugsdeath1short.mov




This is the famous Elmer head roll, animated by Bob McKimson. Bugs is brilliant as the dying rabbit, but the scene is stolen by Elmer's reactions. Elmer underplays the scene, and Bugs overplays it, and yet our eyes are mostly on Elmer...proof, if it was needed, that good reactions are reliable scene stealers.

A lot of directors like to play reactions on a one-shot, which is usually a mistake. People like to see the give and take between the action and re-action, and cutting is a distraction. I remember that Jackie Gleason almost always did his slow burns in two-shots.




Elmer slowly rolls his head right and left in perspective. 2D animators hate this because flaws in the inbetweens always show up when you go this slow. This didn't deter McKimson who was a killer draughtsman.

There are so many delights in Elmer's character design. The big hat emphasizes the head rolls nicely. McKimson could have gone for a perspective distortion by leaning the hat far into camera as it rolled, but he wisely underplayed it. Come to think of it, the whole character design is an example of underplaying the extreme and flamboyant elements. The huge head and tiny, peanut body are sooooo graphically drastic, but Clampett softens them, makes them appealing.




I love the way Elmer reacts to what Bugs is saying. Whenever Bugs has an accent in his animation, Elmer does a quick recoil then drifts back to his previous pose. I love the hand hesitantly patting Bugs' stomach. I love the way Elmer looks offscreen when the delusional Bugs points something out, then drifts back to his original pose. Drifting back after a quick movement is a powerful technique. I love the way Elmer looks at Bugs with those impassive, old-people's eyes. I don't think I've ever seen those kind of eyes in any other Hollywood cartoon.



In the first three pictures at the top, I love the way Elmer seems to be studying Bugs. I'm getting off the subject, but in real life I love the way an irritated person will sometimes study the guy who's irritating him. He'll study him like a scientist for a moment, and it all seems so academic and scholarly, then all of a sudden the irritated person will leap up and try to strangle the other guy. I love it when people on the street try to study each other.




It's amazing that Clampett, who has a reputation for being wild and over-the-top, is also the master of subtle, under-the-top, as in this sequence. Clampett makes you laugh and cry, always in the same cartoon. John K is the same way. No doubt John was influenced by cartoons like this, where subtle acting and broad action go hand in hand.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

HOW WILL THE ECONOMIC CRISIS INFLUENCE STORYTELLING?


Let's plunge right in!!!

If there is a serious economic crisis ahead the big beneficiaries will be TV and the internet. Lots of unemployed people mean lots of people at home connected to the media. These people won't have a lot of purchasing power, but they'll exist in such large numbers that no advertiser will be able to ignore them. Of course what's advertised will have to change. I imagine we'll see a lot of ads for soup, gum, soap, coffee, and the like...things that are cheap and accessible.




We'll probably see a larger audience for network programming since that's free. Cable companies will grow and even prosper for a while, but if the crisis deepens people won't be able to afford what they're offering. Maybe cable can save itself by attracting new advertisers and lowering fees. Maybe they'll acquire network and internet assets. It's hard to predict what'll happen here because at some point TV and the internet will merge, and what the outcome of that will be is anybody's guess.




The demand for animation may level off for a while, but will grow in the long run because frustrated, out of work people like to see exaggerated media. If Americans don't wise up and produce a more dynamic and imaginative product, the beneficiary of that growth will be Asia. A year ago, anime was poised to take over the international animation market, but in my opinion that takeover has been blunted, maybe permanently. The new crisis will create new consumers with new attitudes and Japan, which has animated the same way, and told the same type of stories for half a century, may not be able to adapt.



If the last depression was an indicator, the tastes of viewers will shift over time. In the early years of the Depression audiences wanted escapism and flocked to see stories about rich people in opulent apartments. As time passed audiences acclimated to the hard times, and they were willing to accept gritty stories of reality on the streets, provided they were about appealing and flamboyant gangsters. At the same time we saw stories that were influenced by the heroes of the pulp era, detectives and monsters, and at the tail end of the Depression we saw "arty" and propaganda films, which would evolve into what we later called "Noir."




My prediction is that audiences of the next year or so will prefer the kind of media that traditional television does well, dopey but comforting formats like Oprah and Letterman. After that tastes will dramatically shift to favor feature film-type stories. My prediction is that comedy will be king for a while, then it'll be joined by edgy drama. The comedy will be more sincere and earnest than we're used to, but stand-up will continue, and we might see a lot more physical comedy. Drama will find a new paradigm. It'll be something different, something built around the appeal of specific actors and writers we may not have paid too much attention to til now. Cartoons will be broad and cartoony, because that's what people living on the edge like to see. Horror and religious films too, so long as they also find a new paradigm.




One more prediction, based on audience preferences in the Great Depression: people will want to see dramatic characters that are effective and competent on the job. If this crisis produces any good effect It'll be that America will once again value "can do" types of people. Out of work people identify with people like that.



Tuesday, December 09, 2008

ADDAMS FAMILY-TYPE CHRISTMAS GIFTS!


Ho! Ho! Ho! Ho! HO! Maybe it's the depressing economic news, but I'm in the mood for a different kind of Christmas this year. This time I need something that gives vent to my frustration, something...special! With that need in mind, here's my list of 2008 gift picks...



The pricey one first...how's about giving that special someone a binocular microscope! There's nothing like the gift of live, squirming bugs, like the hornet above, seen close-up!



If you had a bad experience with microscopy before, it's probably because you didn't know how to stain things and prepare the slides. Maybe you didn't know how to light them! You won't have those problems with a binocular (stereo) microscope. Binocular scopes don't use slides, and just about any lighting - a desk lamp or flashlight - will do just fine. That's because binocular scopes are low powered for a microscope. Don't expect to see the bug's cells, Just expect to see the bug nightmarishly large and big enough to bite your face off!

[Actually the picture of the pond skater above was taken with a binocular scope, and the hornet near the top with a monocular scope. Both are taken from the net but accurately reflect the views I routinely see with my own binocular scope. I usually end up viewing a little bit wider than this in order to see more of the bug, and increase the stereo effect. The closer you get, the more things flatten out.]



Edmund Scientific sells a 20 X 40 binocular scope for 200 bucks. That's a bargain! My own scope is a different model, but I got it from Edmund for roughly the same price and it works great! I have a link to their catalogue on the sidebar.




Ever since I saw "Nightmare Before Christmas" and read Dickens' "Christmas Carol," I've thought of Christmas as having horrific overtones. it's not primarily horrific, but it has a little bit of that in it, don't you think? Well, maybe I've gone off the deep-end, but it strikes me as almost appropriate to hold a seance to say Merry Christmas to one's dear departed love ones, and here's the book that can help you do it.



I never read it (that's the book above), I just stumbled on it by accident on the net, but looking at the funky ad made me curious. Even a room full of skeptics is bound to produce some kind of group vibe that would be interesting. If at least a third of the people present were believers in ghosts, that would be even better!



The book claims to walk you through an entire seance. It includes a script for the host and info about tricks that can be done in the dark...sounds good to me! The more raucous (above)the better!



If I were staging it, I would have a finale where accomplices sneak into the dark room wearing black robes and loudly kidnap one of the guests. They'd need to throw a lot of stuff, too.

Anyway, the price for this book is 25 bucks. Come to think of it, if someone gets this book on Christmas, they probably won't be able to stage the seance til New Years. That's OK, new Years would be perfect for it!




Here's (above) a gift idea I always suggest at Christmas, but so far as I know only one person has ever taken me up on it. It's the gift of drinks and free meals for life! Here's how it works:

From the hardware store buy a yard or so of transparent flexible tubing (not pictured), the kind you wrap around naked wires for insulation. The inside should be about as wide as a pencil. Run the tube down the inside of a long-sleeve shirt till one end peaks out from the cuff and the other end discretely peeks out of your open shirt collar, next to your neck. Now you have all you need to suck up the drink of the person beside you without being noticed. "OK," you say, "that gets the gift recipient a free drink, but how does he get the meal?" Read on!

The meal comes to you courtesy of Extend -O- Fork (shown extended above), which is available on-line or from any fun shop. You probably saw them the last time you made a rubber chicken run and just never noticed them. It's a normal-size fork that telescopes out like a car aerial. You simply divert the attention of the unintentional meal sharer and feast! Together with the drink-sucking tube, it's the perfect gift!

The total cost: Under $10!