Wednesday, August 31, 2011


What's your all-time favorite auto design? The Duesenberg? The 1938 Alfa Romeo (above) ? They're great, but my favorites are all older than that. I like the romance of the really early cars when steam, gasoline and battery power all competed for the buyer's dollar. I just got a book about the subject, and it includes some interesting history, which I'll pass along here.

According to the book, the first functional steam car was invented by a Frenchman in 1769. He pulled canons with it it. But that's only the first steam car. There were spring driven and compressed air vehicles before that.

The first American steam car we know about was made in 1805, and cars managed to get into the newspapers with increasing frequency after that. The first picture of an American auto we have was of the Dudgeon Steam Wagon (above) in 1853.  It looks like a miniature locomotive. 

Early cars were mostly tractors, but inventors tinkered together smaller, lighter recreational vehicles as novelties, or to promote other products they were trying to sell, like carriages or batteries. 

Eventually bicycles became a big deal and for a while it looked like the steam powered bike (above) would be the horseless carriage of the future. The bikes were lighter, faster, and cheaper to make than cars. I guess they just weren't comfortable over long distances.

Here's (above) a Stanley Steamer from 1906. What a design! It looks like it's moving when it's standing still! I rode a few yards in one of these with Jay Leno. It was the best ride in a car that I ever had. The car started instantly, and drove very smooth and quiet. 

The English in particular went nuts over steam and continued to make beautiful steam cars right up to the 1950s. 

They came in all sizes and shapes.

But, I digress.

So what happened to steam cars in the U.S.? I'm not sure. They ran quieter, were easier to repair, and were pretty safe relative to internal combustion engines. Some of them were also fast. A racing version of the Stanley Roadster 1908 model was clocked at 127 mph.!
Maybe they got a bad rep because so many railroad locomotives were blowing up. Or... maybe patents were the problem. 

The patents that made steam power so attractive were spread out among small time inventors all over America. The gasoline engine people came later and had to rethink the whole way a car was put together. Maybe fewer people owned the gas patents, and that made manufacture easier. 'Just guessing. 

This (above) isn't the electric car that Granny drove in the Tweety cartoons, but it looks a lot like it. It's the Oldsmobile Curved Dash Runabout from 1903. The canopy distracts from the basic idea, which is that of a sofa mounted on a high buggy. No sides and very little front to enclose the driver. If you closed your eyes while on the road you might imagine that you were flying. 

Oldsmobiles (above) are often thought of as old people's cars, but Olds sold an adaption of  their racing car, called "The Pirate." 

Here's one of my favorite car designs: the 1913 Mercer Raceabout! Check out that extra seat on the running board! No doubt that seat played its part in accidents, but I'd risk it. Wouldn't you?

This (above) isn't a beautiful car, but it gets points for being a funny one. It's the cartoony Cabriolet Locomobile (above). I love how the chauffeur's seat is exposed to the elements, but the owner's seat is entirely enclosed. The carriage tradition demanded that the chauffeur be out there in the ether, buffeted by bees and rain and hail. 

I like to think of an eccentric, Type "A" owner using the speaking tube to regail the harried driver with threats or with bad poetry. 

Sunday, August 28, 2011


John K recently did some astonishingly creative cartoons for Cartoon Network, and I'll discuss one of them here. Actually, it's not a whole cartoon, but a half-minute promo for CN's "Adult Swim." Quick spots like this will attempt to lure adults to the late night show, while warning little kids that the cartoons are not for them.

In this cartoon a cute little Girl Scout and her friend head for the Adult Shack to watch Adult Swim Cartoons, and are stopped in their tracks by an irate Kirk Douglas-type character.

He's outraged that these little rugrats would presume to set their unworthy eyes on the ultimate adult TV show.  He chases them away then storms back into the shack, in the process executing one of the funniest walks in the history of TV animation. That's it...that's the whole story! I warned you...these spots are ultra-short!

Here we are (above) at the halfway mark with the curmudgeon ranting at the kids. This is no ordinary curmudgeon, but rather a fearsome, wild, Type "A", bull curmudgeon, the kind that in real life does a wide angle lean down into your face, allowing you to see  to see every microcapillary and boar bristle on his smoking hot skin.

The curmudgeon (above) turns to walk back to the shack. John, being John, chooses to turn him around in a way that makes it clear that he only has two dimensions.

There he goes...

To give punch to the unusual turn, John pops on a yellow background...

...and widens the shot.

The old, blue night sky background dissolves back in... Kirk completes his turn.

Now commences one of the funniest walks you'll ever see on TV.

John's really into animating on his own films now.

He loves doing dialogue scenes.

A lot of people think good dialogue depends on having the right mouth charts. That's not true.

Dialogue involves the whole face, and sometimes the whole body. You have to act the dialogue, and not simply put weird mouth poses on it.

Dialogue is a great excuse to explore emotions that we try to hide from the world. To see what I mean, film a friend as he speaks, then still frame it.

The chances are that you'll discover a whole range of mood changes in what appeared to be simple speech.

In still frames, even happy people appear to be alternately sullen, quizzical, pained, awed, surprised, bored, elated, depressed, suspicious, dominant, submissive, etc. In animation these quick mood swings can be hilarious.

Speech itself is kind of interesting, apart from the emotions it conveys. Sometimes the mouth doesn't want to say what the speaker commands it to say.

Sometimes a syllable can hide inside your character's mouth and he has to dig around for it with his lips and tongue.

When he finds it, he pushes it to the front and it explodes out,

Sometimes the whole body refuses to take orders from the mind. My own, Eddie Fitzgerald belief, (developed from years of watching John K, Scribner, Tyre, etc.) is that the body and face parts don't always work together in harmony.

The brain decides what emotion it wants to convey, and different parts of the body either conform or rebel. It's as if they had minds of their own.

Funny, blustery characters have a special problem with getting parts of their body to co-operate with each other.

You feel sorry for people like that. Even when they're trying to intimidate you, they have to devote part of their attention to putting down this inner mutiny.

Sometimes a character just can't take the weirdness of it all, and he begins to cry.

An instant later he forgets why he was sad, and puts himself to the task of preparing the next syllable.

But I digress.

Back to the film again: the curmudgeon pushes a man out of the way while he rants.

This reminds me of something McKimson was supposed to have said, that much of Warners' humor had to do with pushing people.

He arrives at the shack immediately after pushing the guy. His arm is still extended.

Now he rallies his whole body for a really big syllabic explosion.

I love how he telescopes his pushing arm (above) back into his body while he anticipates down.

BAM! This syllable gets a big accent. I wish I'd included more inbetweens, because I think the unattached tongue travels all over the mouth here.

'More fun with the eyes. No doubt this is justified by something on the soundtrack.

Watching all these inbetween expressions has been a ton of fun. I feel sorry for animators who only do extreme poses and let their assistants do the rest. Surely a really funny animator will want to do his own inbetweens.  On scenes like this an assistant is mostly for cleanup.

We continue to track along as he walks into his shack. He reminds me of a Trapdoor Spider returning to his lair to wait for another victim.

I can't help digressing again to imagine how a lesser director would have handled this final glimpse at Kirk. My guess is he'd have stopped the curmudgeon at the door, then on a new angle had him deliver a final line, and slam the door behind him. What a mistake! That would have given too much emphasis to the door. Like Marty Feldman said: "People are funny, not things."

Here's (above) an excerpt of the cartoon showing most of the poses I discussed here. Many thanks To John K who allowed me to bypass my computer problems and load these pictures remotely from his house.

Friday, August 26, 2011


I want to do a post about one of John K's recent cartoons for Cartoon Network, but I'll need an extra day to put it together. Check back Saturday or Sunday.

Thursday, August 25, 2011


That's Robert Pattinson above. I couldn't find adequate pictures to illustrate this post, so on a whim I decided to illustrate it with pictures of my daughter's favorite actor. She's a fan of the Twilight movies.

Regarding acting, I thought I'd talk about Harold Guskin. He wrote a book a lot of actors read called "How to Stop Acting." Guskin's famous students include Holly Berry and Kevin Klein. He seems to be good with actors who have to play roles they may not be suited for, but which were too good to turn down. That's a common occurrence, and I imagine Guskin has no trouble filling a class.

Guskin believes that traditional methods put too much stress on perfection and deep understanding.  That makes it hard for an actor to be natural and believable, and nearly impossible for him to have fun.  He says actors ought to do exploratory readings rather than thought out roles, even when they're on stage in front of an audience.

His advice for an audition:

Ignore the casting description. It'll limit you to handling the role in the same boring way that everybody else handles it. Surprise the director if it feels right. If you do what feels right you'll deliver your best performance.

Don't memorize. If it feels right, and you understand what the writer is trying to get across, you should improvise a bit to make the emotion your own.

Spend more time worrying about other characters' lines than your own. Get a feeling for the word music you're both creating. Listen to what the other guy says, and don't sneak a peek at your script while he's speaking.

Dress to feel the part, not look the part. Never audition in costume.

Come with your own agenda. Come with ideas and choices that interest you, but be prepared to be influenced by ideas that are thrown at you in the room.

Attack your fear the moment you become aware of it. If you're afraid your voice won't carry, then shout. Afraid of being quiet? Whisper the line. Afraid of moving? Make a bold move. Afraid of standing still? Stand dead still like a rock.  After you attack take a breath then go somewhere else...anywhere you're not stuck in the same place. The best way to deal with fear is to attack it!

Finally, take control of the audition. If a chair's not where you want it to be, then move it. If people don't understand why you're moving it, that's a good thing. Make the auditioners try to figure out what you're doing, because if they don't have to do that, you won't get the part.

Fascinating, huh? What's my take on this?  I like the kind of acting that's focused on voice training, the kind of thing Cicely Berry writes about. Even so, I have to admit that there's some good practical advice here.

BTW: here's what the author looks like (above).