Friday, July 18, 2008


Billy Debeck put soooo much effort into this sheet music cover (above). It's as if the act of drawing was a sheer delight to him and he couldn't bring himself to stop.

A beautiful girl strokes an old man's beard (above) and he's in seventh heaven. Can any other graphic art portray happiness as well as cartoons can ?

I stole this (above) from John K's blog (original clippings from Marc Dekter). Milt Gross never seizes to amaze. The people are funny, the spaces are funny, and the character relationships are funny...but he doesn't stop there. When you enlarge this you'll see that the whole strip is a celebration of the simple fact that rooms and staircases exist. You can spend years cultivating an awareness of little things like that in a Tibetan monastery, or you can read Milt Gross for a nickel. Gross make us glad to be alive by celebrating the commonplace.

Haw! For Opper (above) everyone has a uniform including hobos, and when you wear the uniform of that profession or personality type then you act accordingly. We want to play roles and the uniform gives us an excuse.

Goldberg, like Gross, is capable of expressing profound loving relationships between people. Here (above) the wife threatens the husband with a rolling pin, but you get the feeling that the real reason he gives her what she wants is because he loves her. She's fat and plain-looking but he loves her anyway, and she loves him. Cartooning is an incredible medium. It can express the deepest emotions with just a few lines.

Bud Fisher (above) celebrates open space and, amazingly...the nature of chairs (!). Fisher made me realize what a chair is for. They're obviously for comfort but they're also for reflection, which we apparently have to do frequently. We sit and think about everything we just saw, then after a minute we pop up, ready to see new stuff. We walk around seeing more things, then we plop down and think about the new stuff we just saw. It goes on and on like that. Apparently the indoor world is so strange and unnatural that we have to spend part of every day talking ourselves into accepting it.

Here (above) Herriman's characters gather outside the mysterious wall. Cartoon characters can't bear to stand around randomly. When there's nothing to do they organize themselves into a group pattern. The closely-knit clump of creatures walks from place to place, occasionally releasing one of their own to perform a real-world task. When the task is done the lone creature returns to the clump.

Here's (above) a couple of Herrimans stolen from Mark Kausler's site. According to Herriman we love to sit in containers and put everything, including ourselves, on top of mounds. How would we know that if it weren't for cartoons?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008


The picture above isn't me. It's Czeslaw Milosz, the writer. More about him in a minute. What I need to talk about now is cartoon acting.

Years ago I decided to specialize in funny cartoon acting. I did it because I loved it, and was a fan of the great cartoon actors like Rod Scribner, and because I thought it might give me an edge in the job market. Now years later I have to admit that the edge wasn't much of an edge. I think I lost as many jobs as I gained because of the acting thing. A lot of new animation was about design and and didn't seem to require acting; as a matter of fact, acting seemed downright out of place.

How did this design emphasis come about? Why does it seem to exclude acting? Why would artists want to exclude acting? I have a bizarre and probably wrong explanation for it. It's pretty silly, but then again this is a theory site and if you can't do silly theories here then where can you do them? the theory is all about...


According to the Wikipedia, ketman is an arabic word which means "paying lip service to authority while holding personal opposition." I prefer a broader definition that I got from Czelaw Milosz's Cold War-era book, "The Captive Mind." Milosz lived under communism where an unguarded word at a party could lead to a prison sentence. He said that the only sure way to be safe was not even to think of opposition to the government. If you allow yourself to think about it, even if you're good at holding it in, sooner or later you'll blurt it out in public and get in trouble. So you practice ketman... you avoid certain topics, you learn to think of controversial issues in terms of broad generalities and homilies, even if you're at home alone.

Of course in a state like the one Milosz lived in lots and lots of things were politicized so the number of subjects to avoid was pretty large. Milosz believed that this kind of restraint led to mass neurosis and a crippling of the elan and zest for life of a whole people. Only liquor seemed to help. Believe it or not all this has to do with animation.

My crackpot theory is that the reason modern animators have rejected comedic acting and work in such a cold style is because they've become uncomfortable with social interaction, and the reason they're uncomfortable with this is because they've practiced ketman all their lives. I blame political correctness.

Modern white guys are bundles of restraint. Talking to them you get the feeling that every sentence is a tortured navigation through dangerous waters. You can't say for example, "She's an idiot" because idiot is an offensive term... a hate crime... and men are not supposed to criticize women without a lengthy philosophical disclaimer stating their good intentions and history of fairness. I can only imagine what it must be like to be a student in art school where half of the students regard themselves as political police whose job it is to inhibit the speech of the other half of the students. My guess is that students resort to ketman to get through the day.

Remember what Milosz said about ketman? If it can cripple the elan and zest for life of whole nations, I don't think it would spare art students.

My guess is that design rules animation right now because design is appealing all by itself and doesn't require characters to have acted relationships with each other. Relationships are minefields to the young, at least to young men. Relationships have an unpleasant association requiring ketman to soothe things over.

Well, that's the argument. Do I believe it? I'm not sure. I can think of almost as many arguments against it as for it, and it is pretty self-serving. You could argue that design emphasis comes about because it's congenial to Flash animation, or that cold but beautiful graphic styles have been popping up ever since Picasso. I don't know...


Saturday, July 12, 2008


No, I'm not gay, and I'm not obsessed with musicals, but I've had to study dance moves lately and I'm glad I did.  Animation people could learn a lot about about the way the best Broadway people used to set up musical numbers. Maybe part of their secret was that they started out with good, danceable music. By way of an example here's  (above) "Steam Heat" from the movie "Pajama Game", choreography by Bob Fosse.  Here's an excerpt from the lyrics by Richard Adler (music by Jerry Ross):

I've got ::cling cling:: fsssss steam heat.
I've got ::cling cling:: fsssss steam heat.
I've got ::cling cling:: fsssss steam heat.
But i need your love to keep away the cold.
They told me to throw some more coal in the boiler.
They told me to throw some more coal in the boiler.
They told me to throw some more coal in the boiler.
But that don't do no good.
They told me to pour some more oil in the burner.
They told me to pour some more oil in the burner.
They told me to pour some more oil in the burner.
But that don't do no good.
Coal in the boiler. No good. Oil in the burner. No good. Cold? NO! Hot?
YES! sssssss yes yes yes come on union get hot!!
I need your love to keep away the cold. I need your looove to keep awayyyy the colddd....fsss YEA!!

Interesting lyrics! With a song like this the dancers didn't have to struggle to interpret a song that was meant to be passively listened to on the radio,  they got to dance to music that was tailor-made to look good on the stage. I wish more animation songs were like that. I don't mind one or two passive listening songs in an animated musical feature because they get radio play and that brings people into the theater, but all the rest of the songs should be stage songs, songs that lend themselves to visual interpretation like "Steam Heat."

Here's (above) the "Steam Heat" song watered down to make a popular radio version.  Most of the funny, quirky sound effects and repeats in the film were deleted or softened to make passive radio listening easier. Do you see why radio versions suck? 

In the case of animated musical features, you should never hamstring the project by using too much visually neutral, radio-type music in the story.  Actually the Pajama Game people did it right...they had one version for the film and one for the radio.  They didn't handicap their movie with too many passive listening elements. 

I should quit while I'm ahead, but I can't help commenting on another idea that handicaps animated musicals, namely the idea that a song is needed to cover every major story point.   I've so often wanted to strangle Disney executives for loading features with songs like: "Here I am a perky, intelligent young girl and I'm ready for love if I can find the right man, provided of course that I also have a fulfilling career." Nobody in their right mind wants to dance to that. No animator with any guts wants to draw it.

You don't have to cover every story point with a song.  Remember Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz?" She never had a song where she sings about how weird and frightening Oz was.  The wicked witch never had a song. Lots of important emotions never got a song...yet there was time for fun stuff like "Follow the Yellow Brick Road."

Friday, July 11, 2008


I thought I'd open with an example of pure disco (above), before talking about how the form morphed into other styles. Of course you could argue that pure disco never really existed. You look at it and you can see Broadway and Funk in it, you can even see Doo Wop and some latin moves...and Ballroom! Ballroom's in there! What a synthesis! Of course disco didn't stay disco very long.

When disco petered out the biggest beneficiary was plain old white people's party dancing, which still looks a little bit like disco. The influence that most interests me though, is the one disco had on Broadway show dancing. Broadway helped to create disco and it, in turn, was also changed by it. Broadway was an amazingly flexible and eclectic style as you can see in this clip (above) from "Billy Elliot." This dance even contains elements of Punk.

This is a terrific dance: age and youth in a light-hearted, sweeping choreography that seems to forgive mistakes. The music (by T-Rex) is typical of the disco-Broadway synthesis. It's laid-back, but also jazzy; the kind of thing professional dancers like.

I've posted this (above) before: Fosse's "Everything Old is New Again" dance from "All That Jazz." Disco mixes with Broadway, and it works! Talk about influences! This has Broadway, Disco, Ballet, Jazz, Funk, and "Eccentric Dancing." Man, Fosse was an incredible synthesizer! How do you like the ballet steps Anne Reinking did around the kid creeping on the floor near the end? Can you believe all these influences work so well together?

Notice the music again: another one of those songs that performers and dancers like, but which non-dancers only like when they see it performed. The Isobel Wren video I put up a few weeks ago had a great example of that style.

Another famous synthesis (above), this time from "Flashdance." American musical theater was still creative right up to the early 90s. My guess is that Hip-Hop killed it. Nobody could figure out a way to merge that style that with Broadway. Rock didn't merge well but Disco, Jazz and Funk made the transition beautifully, as you can see above. With Hip-Hop it looks like Broadway met it's match. The great synthesizer couldn't absorb it. Maybe it was designed not to mix, I wish I knew.

The last gasp of the Broadway style was amazing, as you can see in the last three examples here. If any culture in the past had come up with something this good, they'd have made it the official state artform and repeated it for a thousand years without change. With these dancers this incredible style was just one among many.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008


Gee, it's kinda sad to think that one of the most influential genre writers of the past four decades died last year with hardly a yawn from the media. She was right up there with Ian Fleming and Stephen King but you probably haven't heard of her because she wrote romance stories, which men don't read and which feminists and hippies disdain. The only people who liked her were romance readers, who bought her books in the tens of millions.

Kathleen Woodiwiss (real name: Kathleen Hogg) invented the steamy historical romance ...the bodice ripper. Before Woodiwiss there were thin, Harlequin-type romances and a smattering of nurse novels. After Woodiwiss there were thick historical novels packed with sex and purple prose.

What interests me most is the purple prose. Woodiwiss wanted to write about idealistic, passionate people and over-the-top sex scenes. She rightly figured that these would sound ridiculous in modern narrative English, so she put her stories in the past and cast about for a style that would fit. She obviously read books like "Gone With the Wind," but I'm guessing that she really hit paydirt when she discovered the swashbuckler style used by Raphael Sabitini. Sabitini was the Sergio Leone of his day. I picture her boldly updating and expanding on Sabitini, pushing the style farther and farther till she had something new on her hands.

Fleming was a great genre writer, but he didn't have to oppose the style of his time. Woodiwiss was forced to come up with a whole new style (or a drastically new take on an old style) and thrust it into the inhospitable world of the 1970s.

Writes Woodowiss:

"You bade me wait and cool your heels till you sailed this one last time, then you return and gift me with your wife! You present this common slut to take my place after you've played the round with my affections! Damn you, you crusty bull!" Brandon spun her around and caught her by the shoulders , almost lifting her clear of the dock. "Be warned, Louisa," he stated slowly. "She is my wife and carries my child. I wronged you, true, so wreak your vengeance upon my frame, but never--ever lay one hand upon her head!"

This was written in the early seventies. I wonder what the hippies thought of it.

Just so I don't disappoint, here's a Woodowiss sex, wait a minute, I'll save that for a separate "blue" post. In the story above, let it suffice to say that Captain Brandon Birmingham "probes the depths of Heather's full womanhood!"

BTW, I'm no expert on romance novels. I'm a guy and they're just not my thing, but I can appreciate the expertise that goes into them as well as the spirit. I admire romance readers because they won't be put off by ridicule or the hostility of the literary establishment.  They want romance and adventure in their lives and if they can't have it in real life, then they'll have it in fantasy.

These are the kind of women who, regardless of their sedate exteriors, are somewhere deep inside ready to risk everything, including life itself, for the man they love. They have guts and conviction.  In the Ice Age they were the women who would confront a sabertooth tiger with a tree branch in order to save their baby. They were the women who, with dagger drawn, would stay with a wounded husband through the night in a dark and menacing forest full of wolves. These women are the salt of the Earth. You can build a civilization around people like that.

Monday, July 07, 2008


Disneyland (LA) is an amazing place. It's corporate and wrong in so many ways, yet it still manages to do a bunch of things right. I just went there today and walked away with bagloads of ideas. I thought I'd talk about a few of them here.

Everybody who's seen the Peter Pan ride is familiar with the outdoor entrance, which is a sweep of rooftops that leads to an open children's room window. Now let that sink in're not even inside the ride yet, and you're already confronted with a major architectural idea: a huge floor-to-ceiling, barn door of an open window overlooking complex and interesting rooftops! I don't know about you, but I'd kill to have a real window like that.

And the window overlooks beautiful rooftops (above)...that's so rational. Real-life rooftops are sometimes the most beautiful part of a building. You don't want to waste that. You want windows overlooking it, as in the Dulac painting above (Thanks to Steve Worth and the ASIFA archive), or maybe a whole gallery overlooking it, as in the Hungarian castle above. Who would benefit most from such windows? Kids of course, they have the imagination to appreciate it. If they somehow managed to avoid falling to their deaths, they'd surely grow up to be geniuses with visual stimulation like that! ....Just kidding of course, but it's fun to free associate.

There are a few unsettling misfires on the rides. Alice's forest and signs (above) were far more interesting in the film. Oh well, let's not dwell on negatives.

The Pinnochio ride reproduces Ghepetto's workshop, and specifically the brilliant toy shelf conceived by Gustav Tenggren (above). It's great to be reminded of that. If you're an artist, you see something like that and you want to drop everything and sculpt toys. Tenggren's best work is full of charisma...he creates environments that you want to walk around in and touch.

Here's a ride (above) that jaded people hold in contempt: the Casey Jr. ride from Storybook Land. It looks lame so lots of people never give it a try. Actually it's one of the most stimulating rides in the park. That train really tears along and the perspective and volume contrasts along the way are always unexpected and shocking. Ride the open car, second to the last from the back. Always ride in the back when you're on small train rides...that's where you experience the the most centrifugal force. It's also good for people watching.

Here's (above) the Mad Tea Party ride. The Mary Blair-type colors are awe-inspiring, and the action takes place on a broad, sweeping plain slightly below ground level, and under a canopy of beautiful but menacing lanterns. The hedges that surround it are dark to set off the color. The effect is that of a Witch's Sabbath where cups spin madly under a canopy of hovering demons. The fact that half the people in the spinning cups are on the verge of vomiting adds to the wonderful weirdness of it all.

Here's (above) what looks like an outdoor puppet theater above the entrance to a building. Could this be accurate? Did the Swiss ever stage puppet shows above the entrance of puppet theaters, just to lure the public inside? It's a great idea, even if the Disney people made it up.

Here's (above) a model of Mr. Toad's car. I've sat in similar life-size cars in Toon Town and I can testify that these are fun designs that would be worth adapting to real, working automobiles. The car is essentially a high sofa with wheels, which in my opinion is the design that's most fun to drive in real life. You have the wind in your face, the comfort of a sofa, and the airy freedom of driving without restraining walls on the side. it's the closest thing to a magic carpet ride. I sat in a real car like that (owned by Jay Leno) and the experience was thrilling, even when the car was standing still.

Friday, July 04, 2008


As I write this I still haven't seen these videos together. I have no idea if this is going to work. Maybe I'm about to publish the worst blog post ever. I have a feeling the music (a gift from Mike F) might not fit. Oh well, If my part sucks you can still enjoy Laura Hilliar's legs.

Oh, yes! Start the two videos at the same time, starting with the top one. The idea is to see both videos playing at the same time. Make sure both are in frame at the same time before you begin. If they seem out of sync try starting them at different times.

Sometimes double clicking the images will take you to YouTube, which is a mistake (to get the effect the videos have to play at the same time on Blogger). If you end up on YouTube, just go back to Blogger and start over again. Keep fooling with'll get it.