Thursday, May 24, 2012

Ten Bits of Trivia about Redux Riding Hood

First of all, a HUGE public thank you to Jerry Beck, the patron saint of cartoons, for posting about Redux on his Cartoon Brew site.  The ensuing avalanche of YouTube views exceeded 15,000 in 48 hours.  Yikes!

So now that you've seen the film, here's some useless information to store in your head:

1. Most of the photo cut-out elements came from a Montgomery Ward catalog from the 1940's owned by production designer John Kleber. He xerox'ed the entire catalog for our production purposes.  The catalog had live chicks, and kits to build an entire house yourself.

2. In order to sufficiently tone down his voice during the depressed Wolf scenes, Michael Richards recorded those lines while lying on the floor.

3. Grandma is a caricature of my maternal grandmother, Bertha Davis.  She also appears in the movie Bebe's Kids.
Grandma Davis, left, with my Aunt Viola at Disney World's Contemporary Hotel, 1972.
4. The photo over Grandma's bed is my maternal great-grandmother, Louisa Schmickel, who lived to be 100.  

5. Grandma's house is pink because she's a faded red.  It's a color pun, a bad one at that.

6. Next to the door in the Wolf's garage is a shovel and two bags of sheep manure.  A side business for Doris?

7. The boy in the photo on Grandma's dresser is my nephew, Henry Moore.  In one shot, it is background painter Richard Morgan.

8. To entice Fabio to do the part, the Woodsman's role was padded by storyboard artist John Norton, who added the "Mr. Bunny Rabbit." lines.

9. Don Rickles couldn't keep our names straight, so he called us all "Richie."

10. In the final sequence, where hundreds of wolves make plans in the kitchen, there's a wall map with a red X.  That address was the location of Toonz Animation in Auckland, New Zealand.

11.  The final shot is a take-off on Alfred Hitchcock's final shot in The Birds.

Okay, that's eleven pieces of worthless trivia.  I'm glad to have so much interest in a short I thought was forgotten.  Thanks for watching and spreading the word.


Monday, May 21, 2012

Here it is - Redux Riding Hood

In September of 1995, at Disney TV Animation, Veep Sharon Morrill asked if I would like to direct a Fractured Fairy Tales type of short, and have stylistic free reign.

"Say that last part again?"

Free reign.  Go crazy with it.

And so I began working on Redux Riding Hood, a short that would take me to the sixth row at the Oscars.  Dan O'Shannon, one of the top sit-com writers around, had written a script about a wolf who, obsessed with his failure to catch Red Riding Hood, builds a time machine to go back and do it right.  It was Dan's concept, and the script was hilarious.

Even with a great script, there are plenty of ways for the final product to fail.  I set to work on the big stuff: production design, cast, and musical score.

Redux needed a  production designer who had never worked in animation, someone not schooled in animation history, not influenced by classic cartoons of yesteryear.  Dan Rounds, who I'd worked for on A Goofy Movie recommended a fishing buddy of his in New Mexico named John Kleber.   When I saw John's work I knew, from the color palette to the use of textural and photo collage elements, I had found my production designer.
John Kleber artwork.  Pieces like this were the springboard to the Redux production design

The first thing John wanted to know was if there were animated films he should view as reference.  "NO!" I said, and forbade him to look at ANY animated cartoons while we were doing this project.  The only other limitation I put on John was, because of our schedule, the style would need to allow background painters to work quickly.

I had a few meetings with casting director Jamie Thomason, who questioned me about the characters - what kind of person was the Wolf, Doris, Red, Granny, etc.  Once we had talked out who the characters were, the casting choices became self-evident.  Michael Richards was the manic Wolf.  Mia Farrow, as his long suffering wife (I made her a sheep, animation's first inter-species marriage.) I liked Mia's casual delivery and the sound of her plaintive voice was a great counterpoint to Richards' abrasive sound.  Writer Dan O'Shannon hated Mia's Doris, because she didn't have that sit-com cadence.  He wanted her recast, but I held my breath longer and won out.  I could go on and on about the cast -  Lacey Chabert, Adam West, Fabio, June Foray, Don Rickles -  but for now I'll just say I hit the jackpot.  And Jamie Thomason is truly brilliant.  There's no one else I would want in a recording session than Jamie.

For music I wanted jazz great Bennie Wallace.  I had met Bennie during the ill-fated Betty Boop feature in '93.  He knows more about music than anyone I have every met.  When I described the project and the off-beat quality of it, he brought me Charles Mingus' album Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus.  Like John Kleber's artwork, I was immediately inspired and excited as a new layer of the film revealed itself.

With Mingus as inspiration, Bennie set to the task, casting his musicians to get the right sound - among them Robben Ford on guitar, Emil Richards and his magic box of percussion instruments, Art Baron and his mad trombone, Alex Acuna brought a Latin beat on drums, and Bennie himself on Sax.

We recorded at Capitol Records in Hollywood, in Sinatra's old stage.  As the musicians assembled, Disney's music veep Bambi Moe asked Bennie to see the cue sheets.  When she saw them, her head exploded. "WHERE ARE THE NOTES?!"  the large orafice on her head shouted.

Bennie laid on his Tennessee drawl. "Bambi, this is jazz." He said, "You don't tell these guys how to play."  Bennie was right.  He had indicated general timing cues and tempo, but the rest was improvised.  When the musicians performed, it was magic.  I got goosebumps, and was truly depressed when they finished.  I wanted them to play all night.

Here's the end credit cue with full band.  Bennie and Art Baron have a musicians' joust.  The spontaneity of this could not have been reproduced from transcription.

Disney TV President Dean Valentine loved the music, but said, "Jazz is for having a cigar and scotch. Not cartoons."  This time my head exploded.  How could this guy be in charge of an animation studio and have no knowledge of the history of the medium?  I was seriously outranked on this fight, and the score would have surely been scrapped without the intervention of Peter Hastings.  Peter's One Saturday Morning cartoon block was a huge hit,  so he was one guy who Dean trusted.  Peter gave the score his approval, and it was saved.

Thanks Peter!

I got to spend five months in New Zealand for production - what a beautiful country.  We did our best with a fairly green crew.  Lily Dell did some amazing work on the Wolf and animated the Time Machine combining cut-outs and drawings.  While in New Zealand, Jeffrey Katzenberg called me from DreamWorks.  I thought it was a friend doing a prank, so I played along rudely.  Then it struck me.  "This really is Jeffrey Katzenberg."

"Yes it is,"  he said, "the horse's ass."

I have no idea how he found me, or that he even knew who I was.  He wanted me to call him when I got back.  I only mention it because it was so bizarre.

Back in the States, the post mix with Dave Stone's awesome sound effects - his custom made Time Machine sound is hilarious. We did some festivals, went to the Oscars, lost, and then the film was put away.  Seven months after the Oscars, I was shown the door.
I won't go into that ugliness.

In the years since, Michael Richards had his infamous night club blow-out.  Garrison Keillor, our narrator, has made some less famous blow-outs.  I don't know if that has hurt the chances of a Redux release, but I hope not.  No one at Disney or on my crew endorses the backward thinking of two actors in the cast.  And while I dish about some now ex-Disney execs, in the big picture, Sharon, Bambi, Dean, and all the Disney brass were very supportive of Redux Riding Hood.  They let me make this film.  It would not have happened without their ultimate consent.  For that I will always be appreciative.  I'd like people to see it, so I post it here.

If you like Redux, show your support and join out Facebook page!

Friday, May 18, 2012

Team Squirrel wants YOU to run the Royal Parks Half-Marathon this October

Chester squirrel wants YOU on October 7th
A few years ago I started helping out the Royal Parks Foundation by designing characters and logos for them - helping to raise funds for the Royal Parks, the green spaces that help to make London a liveable city. It started with Deckchair Dreams, an event which rounded up artists like Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin to design deckchairs to brighten up the parks in summer. The theme was flora and fauna so obviously I picked red squirrels - despite the fact that there aren't any in the parks; they've all been driven out by their grey North American cousins. Anyway you can still buy the deckchairs here if you fancy some designer artwork for your garden this summer.
Deckchair Dreams - perfect for your garden tbis summer!
This year, on October 7th they are planning a half-marathon through the parks, great fun and very picturesque (not like the full London Marathon which goes through some bits of the metropolis you'd rather forget). Last year someone ran in a full squirrel costume - obviously they were completely insane but amazingly the runner made it to the finishing line.

Squirrel costume optional
All of this is in the name of charities and good causes - and you can raise funds for any charity you like - not just the Royal Parks Foundation. Which gives you a marvelous opportunity to pester friends and family for cash. So much fun.

- Alex

Monday, May 14, 2012

Cinesite sold...but for how much?

Ever since Kodak filed for bankruptcy in the US, a question mark has hung over its UK subsidiary Cinesite. Cinesite is an excellent visual effects house in London's Soho, one of the "Big Four" (including Frame Store, Double Negative, and MPC) which I worked at for many years. We animated hundreds of shots on Underdog, Beverly Hills Chihuahua and Marmaduke. Talking animals is not the most glamorous end of the VFX business but we took pride in building a highly efficient pipeline that could produce a huge amount of high-quality work in a very short time.

Some of the most fun I had there included working on the Harry Potter films - who wouldn't want to work on the series that has transformed the visual effects business in London? We did the magical tweeting birds from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince - all beautifully rendered and suitable for an extreme close-up (though in the end we never got closer than a wide shot).

Working at Cinesite is fun in part because it still has the intimate feel of a small company - but with big, rich parents overseas, it was always protected from the short-term chill winds of the market. Now, with Kodak gone, it is having to fend for itself. Still, it was a surprise to see that a company which (according to yesterday's Sunday Times) made a profit of £2.7m on a turnover of £25.8m in 2010, has been sold to the private equity firm Endless for "around £2m".

Now, as every Londoner knows, £2m will barely buy you a house in the metropolis these days. Surely one of London's leading VFX houses is worth more than that?

- Alex

Friday, May 11, 2012

Lunch at Maurice's

Maurice Sendak invited me to lunch.  I had been in the running to take over as director of the animated Where the Wild Things Are feature at Universal, which, after many many months of development, Maurice hated. He liked my take on Wild Things, and I had meetings at Universal and phone conversations with Maurice about how to put the project back on-track.  Spike Jonze swooped in and made the film in live action,  but on this day in August of 2002, I found myself driving down a small, windy road to have lunch at his house in Connecticut.

When I arrived, Maurice was a couple of hundred yards from his house, taking his daily walk.   I complimented him on his place - a beautiful bucolic cottage with lush gardens.  Maurice gestured with his cane to some very large nearby homes.  "This was a great place to live until they came around."  he said, slowly shaking his head,  "McMansions!"

He gave me a little tour around the property. The walkway to the back door of the house led us through a rich, floral garden, for which he took no credit.  "People come in and tend to it." he shrugged.  He had an amazing collection of early Disney memorabilia with Mickey and Donald toys from 1930 made of celluloid - very rare.  But what was truly mind-blowing was seeing his drawing table, where he had done so many books, and was working on his latest, Brundibar.  He had a partially complete illustration on the table, and asked me to look through the other pages while he told me the story.  I felt very self-concious, ol' Stevie Moore from a little hick town was now in the presence of artistic royalty.  I flashed back to being in first grade, reading Wild Things in the library, and now here I was with the guy.  Then he asked me what I thought of Brundibar.


"It's your masterpiece."  I said, terrified he might think I was laying it on too thick. He didn't.  Even a 73 year-old legend likes to hear his work is good. Brundibar really is a masterpiece, by the way.

A lady magically appeared from the kitchen with salads for lunch.  Maurice and I had a meandering conversation about the business of animation and the business of book publishing - they have a lot of the same problems with management driven creative decisions.  He hated the trend in children's literature where famous people, like Madonna, were publishing books as vanity projects to impress their children.  To Maurice Sendak, they made a mockery of his medium, the implication being that it took no real skill to write for children.  He talked fondly of Ted Geisel, his friend.  Dr. Seuss was probably the only one in his field who Maurice Sendak held above himself.  He called him a genius, then chuckled at how he would taunt Geisel about his drawing ability.

He talked about authors he knew socially, like Kurt Vonnegut, but always felt treated like the kiddie-book guy.  He never really belonged to the club.  Maurice's intellect and wit was as sharp as they come, so he found this social snubbing quite demeaning.

His view of children was quite different from the consensus.  He believed that children were not innocent, that innocence is a quality adults project onto them.  Children had the same flawed character traits as adults, and that childhood was not full of wide-eyed, idyllic magic.

The conversation eventually found its way to Wild Things.  He recalled the animation test done at Disney in the early '80's by John Lasseter and Glen Keane.  He was talking about the same test that me and my CalArts classmates had drooled over twenty years earlier.  Maurice not only disliked it, he hated it.   Beautiful animation and breakthroughs in CG technology aside - the character was not Max.

He recounted how Michael Eisner pressured him to sell the rights to Disney.  Over dinner, Eisner laid on the charm.  At one point, he pulled out a checkbook and tossed it toward Maurice.

"What's this?" Maurice asked.

""You fill it out."  Eisner said.  "Any number you want.  I want  Wild Things."

Maurice had a general distain for pomposity.  But instead of telling Eisner where to endorse the check, he made a proposition.  "I collect Disney memorabilia.  Rare stuff."

Eisner nodded, unsure where this was going.

"Back in the '30's, Walt and Roy Disney owned Duesenbergs with gold plated Mickey Mouse gas caps.  There were only two made.  They are the Holy Grail of Disney collectibles.  Roy Disney has one, the other is in the morgue."

He paused for effect.

"Get me that gas cap and you can have the rights."

Eisner was completely gobsmacked.  "I can't do that!"  he said.

Maurice laughed, turning the knife, "You're Michael Eisner, the most powerful man in Hollywood!  You can't get me a gas cap?"

Eisner's face flushed.  "Okay,"  he said, putting away his checkbook, "I'll see what I can do."

A few days later, Maurice got a message from one of Eisner's secretaries.  He couldn't do it.

Maurice reveled in stories like this, where bully-headed big shots get knocked down a peg.  There was a wounded quality to Maurice that made him appealing even in his most bitter moods.

As happens in our business,when we stopped working together, we gradually lost touch.  I tried to call once in a while, but felt like I was bothering him, even though he was always kind to me and  my wife.   He was one of the good guys, and I'm sorry to see him go.    

Jeff Koterba editorial cartoon

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Prince of Glendale

A DreamWorker

The vast arch that leads into DreamWorks animation is even bigger than the one at Paramount - and this is surely not an accident. Few visitors can fail to be impressed by the sheer size and elegance of Jeffrey Katzenberg's Glendale animation studio. I was lucky enough to work there for many years on a number of projects including The Road to El Dorado, Spirit - Stallion of the Cimarron, and Sinbad. Not the most successful films that the studio produced, but all three crammed with excellent work lovingly hand-crafted by a hugely talented crew.

Don't you wish you worked here?
Ten years later, I want to slap my younger self for not appreciating it more, or for realizing quite how fortunate I was. Stepping onto the DreamWorks lot is an extraordinary experience - there are fountains, lakes, waterfalls, aquatic fowl nesting in the topiary, and paved avenues lined with trees. Little expense has been spared to create what is entirely mistakenly referred to as "a campus". Actually, it feels more like an Italian Renaissance town, complete with campanile, olive groves - and of course an excellent restaurant, which has the added advantage of being free. 

Pressing the metaphor, all of this would make Jeffrey a sort of Prince of Animation, or at the very least a Grand Duke. The only thing missing is a cathedral (though a cynic might say that the screening theatre provides a substitute venue for worship). Actually, that would be harsh. It is easy to under-estimate the scale of Jeffrey's achievement - taking on Disney at their own game, and winning. His studio took a while to become a hit-factory but, like Pixar, DreamWorks has assumed Walt's mantle and inherited his legacy.
OK - I'll stop now
I was there last week meeting my old friend and colleague Nassos Vakalis for lunch - which was delicious. Nassos is an excellent animator and story board artist who draws with fluency and skill and has a fine sense of camera and shot progression. We first worked together at Warner Bros Feature Animation - another studio which tried (and failed) to emulate Disney's success. I have always been envious of Nassos's ability to capture an idea in a few lines, and his creative energy. Here's a link to a trailer to his latest short film, which looks very charming. It has been winning awards in animated film festivals all over Europe.

- Alex

Monday, May 7, 2012

Disney kills 2D animation...again? A Dinosaur's view

Some dinosaurs, including Andreas Deja, Nik Ranieri, Raoul Garcia and Charles Solomon. Tom Sito is behind the camera.
Animation critic and historian Charles Solomon kindly set up a lunch for me last thursday with some old Disney kumrads, at a burger joint in Toluca Lake called The Counter. A "Dino's lunch" is an irregular gathering of wizened 2D animators (ie dinosaurs), most of whom I haven't seen in many years. We used to meet at Mo's in Burbank but they have since dropped curly fries from the menu - obviously this was just one step too far and we Dino's have been forced to take our custom elsewhere. 

It was great to see so many familiar faces. Andreas Deja was there, whose awesome blog Deja View you can see here. Andreas recently left Disney after decades of dedicated service, along with fellow uber-animator Glen Keane. It looks like the recent brief revival of 2D animation - which culminated in The Princess and the Frog - under John Lasseter's leadership has already burned itself out, and there are no 2D projects on the horizon.
The end of 2D animation at Disney?
What a sad end to the world's finest tradition of 2D animation. And especially confusing since I am told that the re-release of The Lion King in 3D made $100m at the box office - so there must be some life left in hand-drawn animation yet.

Anyway, here's a photo of some of the Dino's, including - in no particular order - Andreas Deja, Tom Sito, Raoul Garcia , Nik Ranieri, and Charles Solomon. Many thanks to Charles for bringing everyone together. He is a wonderful writer and you can pre-order his latest excellent book here:

- Alex

(Editor's Note: You can read more about the end of 2D animation at Disney here)

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

From the Disney Vault - A Screening of Rarities

From Disney Studios' Dave Bossert:

"Don Hahn and I will be doing another evening of Disney Rarities at the Newport Beach Film Festival this Wednesday, May 2, 2012.  This is our 5th year doing the festival and we have put together a great show with some rarely seen Disney bits.  If you are around Newport Beach on Wednesday, drop by for a fun screening at the Lido Theater, at 7:30."

Dave, Don, and Roy Disney screened my short "Redux Riding Hood" back in '07 - the first screening in nearly ten years.  This may be your only chance to see these films on the big screen.  If you're in Southern California, don't miss it!  - Steve

Click here for more information and to buy tickets.