Saturday, March 31, 2012

Deja Vu

I recently stumbled across Andreas Deja's blog - Deja Vu - which is crammed with excellent posts, especially on Disney's Nine Old Men and their enduring legacy and contribution to the craft of animation. Twenty years ago I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to work with Andreas on "Scar", the character he designed and supervised on the "Lion King". Andreas was kind enough to let me join his team one summer at Disney in 1993 when I was still a student, eager to spend a summer working in LA to try to get better at animation and to earn some spare cash. Looking back now I can't believe how lucky I was - or how little I really knew. Despite my stumbling inexperience, Andreas was a generous mentor and under his careful guidance I managed to complete a number of shots on the film, work which I am still proud of 20 years later. 

I learned a great deal from Andreas, but the most important thing that he taught me was that no matter how good you are as an animator - and he is very very good indeed - we all stand on the shoulders of giants. Andreas's fascination with the work of Disney's 9 Old Men shows how much we can still learn from the Golden Age of Animation - if we will just take the trouble to study it.

- Alex

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

ObamaCare and Me

Yes, I'm weighing in on health insurance.

My wife, Donna, and I did not have health insurance when she was diagnosed with cancer last year. (see earlier post.)  She had left a job with insurance, and was looking into buying private insurance when it all hit the fan.

Thanks to the Affordable Health Care Act (a.k.a. ObamaCare), we were able to get insurance even with Donna's pre-existing condition.  If opponents of this law had had their way (and they eventually may),  we would have been denied insurance, and would have faced severe financial stress while trying to fight a life threatening disease.

There's been an awful lot of nasty rhetoric being tossed around, decrying this law as unconstitutional. An invasion of privacy.  An attack on our freedom.

I thought they were talking about Facebook.

This is about health insurance.  Not Communism.  Not the Taliban.  Not gay whales.  Not Mo-Cap.   Health insurance.  We are being forced to get insurance. Insurance companies are being forced to insure the sick.  That's the deal.

Some gnash their teeth in panic, imagining that their fears and prejudices come to life and gang-bang them in the name of ObamaCare.  Donna and I experienced this law in the real world, first hand.  It helped us.  That's not a Democratic thing nor a Republican thing.  It's a human thing.

And now, a cartoon.....
Bimbo's Initiation
Not unlike getting a law through Congress.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Space Stallions!

Another awesome student film from The Animation Workshop - the hilarious Space Stallions, produced by another talented crop of recently graduated Danish film-makers. I have been coming to teach at the Animation Workshop in Viborg, Denmark for many years now, and I always love coming back; the school has a terrific energy and has become one of the best places to study animation in Europe. All classes are conducted in English, and international students are welcomed. The school has recently added a CGA (computer graphics art) course with a strong emphasis on technical skills, and the CG artists work together with the animators in their third year to produce a "bachelor project" - a final year film which aims to combine excellent animation and story telling with a high level of technical skill. Every year the films seem to get better and better, and the recent results speak for themselves. Enjoy! - Alex

Monday, March 26, 2012

Butch Hartman's YooToon Studios

My old chum Butch Hartman is chumming for new talent.  Butch has become the King of Cartoons at Nickelodeon with his Fairly Oddparents, Danny Phantom, and T.U.F.F. Puppy series getting heavy rotation in the programming day.  And yes, I have given him grief over the obnoxiously loud soundtracks in his shows, but he's still kind enough to listen, then tip me for polishing his Bruno Maglis.

He has launched the YouTube channel "YooToon Studios".  Butch explains:

"YOOTOON STUDIOS is an area where aspiring animators of every age, shape and size can get their work seen by Hollywood professionals. If their videos get lots of attention we'll give them a small budget to make even more! The bigger the audience, the bigger the budget! Also, I'll be doing my own original stuff, too. Videos should be between 10 seconds and two minutes, ideally. But, hey, if your genius exceeds two minutes, let's see it anyway!"

And that's the carrot in a nutshell.  Get to it, kids!

Saturday, March 24, 2012

"Walt's Dead - You Missed It"

Those were the words of Ward Kimball, spoken in 1980 to a small theater full of Cal Arts students.  He might as well have been preaching atheism in a cathedral.  Students were not only hurt, but outraged that this "nine old man", this apostle of Walt, could deny their dreams of Walt's Second Coming.  They were, after all, the new generation being groomed to restore and continue the Walt Disney legacy.

Thirty two years later, that generation is still dreaming.  In the Fantasy Disney Studio in their minds, Glen Keane, Andreas Deja, and seven other guys become the new nine old men, and John Lasseter becomes Walt, bringing back old school animation for good,  and the artists move back into the old animation building, with the old desks, and marry ink and paint girls, and have lunch at Alphonse's and martinis at the Pago Pago.  Sigh.

When Glen Keane announced last week that he was leaving the studio, a chorus of shrieks rang out.  How could he do that?   The blablogs were on fire with comments on his announcement - barking up opinions as if Glen actually owed them an explanation for what was, in fact, a personal decision.

I don't know Glen, personally.  But I know he's done the best character animation of his generation and has nothing to prove.  He gave thirty six years to a studio that, during his tenure, grew, as if on steroids, into a pumped-up, corporate soulcrusher.  They'll go on making animated films (or not), but its homey, midwestern roots are gone, save for some very nice people working there, dreaming, dreaming, of the Fantasy Disney Studio in their minds.

"Walt's dead. You missed it."

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Brenda Chapman's New Website

Good ol' Brenda Chapman has announced the launch of her own website:  And like everything she does, she did it right.

Brenda had this to say about it:
"I've learned that I really enjoy writing. It's a good place to try things out. And it's a chance for me to give a little back. I will never ever ever ever live up to Joe (Ranft) and his generosity with people who went to him for advice. He never turned anyone away who wanted his mentorship. I don't know how he did it, or found the time - but he did. So if I can do that on my own small scale, it's really to honor Joe. - I don't mean to sound mushy or mundane, but again, there it is."

I've known Brenda since we were CalArts kids.  Even in her student work she brought a humanity to her characters that played very real.  That's not something you can calculate, it has to come from the heart.  Few people in our business can tap that, but she can.  While the rank and file in our industry are busy aping each other, she brings her own perspective to her work.  

This is a good thing.    


Friday, March 16, 2012

The Official Lawyer's Handbook

Even though I have spent 20 years in the animation business, I had a short lived career in the early 90's as a barrister - that is to say a lawyer of the wigged variety - made famous (ish) by John Cleese in A Fish Called Wanda. I still write and draw a weekly cartoon strip about lawyers in The Times - you can see it at - the site is full of law jokes, law cartoons, and law humour. And, from time to time I publish a new collection of the cartoons for my legion of fans (my Mum and her friends).

My latest book, published by the excellent JR Books, is a collaboration with the hugely talented American writer and ex-lawyer Daniel R. White - who is the main reason why The Official Lawyer's Handbook is as good as it is. Anyway this is my favourite book so far, and even if you don't think lawyers are funny, you still might enjoy laughing at them, especially if you have recently emerged from divorce or bankruptcy. You can find the book here at, and I hope you have as much fun reading it as I had writing and drawing it - Alex

Thursday, March 15, 2012

2 D Goggles - or the Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage

One of the many privileges of our business is the pleasure of working alongside talented colleagues. I first met Sydney Padua at Warner Bros where we worked on Brad Bird's wonderful Iron Giant. Since then we have bumped into each other on many animation and VFX features including most recently The Chronicles of Narnia - Voyage of the Dawn Treader, where Sydney did some beautiful character work on Eustace, the dragon.

Syd does not neglect her own personal projects and has developed her own highly successful online web comic about the Victorian inventor and computer pioneer, Charles Babbage. The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage has developed a huge following and even the science establishment is very keen to get involved - making science interesting for kids. She recently did a TED talk which you can see here. Syd is an inspiration for every animator who dreams of getting on with their own personal work - while simultaneously balancing the need to do commercial work and of course earn a living. Her web comic is beautifully drawn and very funny, and you can find it here. Personally, I can't wait for the graphic novel. Enjoy! - Alex

Monday, March 12, 2012

FLIP on Flops

I didn't see John Carter.  But I have worked on my share of flops. My heart goes out to the really talented people who poured so much of themselves into a production like that.  It's like you've raised a child to walk the high wire, and on his first step out,  he falls to his death.

Peers stare in silence.  They'll mumble privately to each other, "The kid was too fat." or "The kid didn't know what he was doing." or "They should have given the kid a better name."  but publicly, there's an awkward silence.  They put their heads down and go back to work.

When one of our peers fails, there's a shiver of fear that resonates through the creative ranks.  In our industry, failure is made very public.  Media people seem to drool over the opportunity to take smug, dismissive shots at a movie that didn't work.  They haughtily highlight every flaw, and belittle the filmmakers for their incompetence.  People all over the world get to witness this beating to their own amusement, adding their own asinine comments without the slightest idea that the movie was made by good, talented people who just couldn't make the sum of the parts come together as a whole.

And then there's a private fallout in the studio.   Studio brass forget your name.  Your agent forgets your number.  Friends forget to be friends, wanting to avoid any conversation about the whole mess. Is it any wonder that creative people are afraid to take chances?

In FLIP #17, director Dan Scanlon talked about the fear of failure in the industry:

"I find a lot of professionals artist are afraid to make something on their own because they fear it won't live up to the standard of the projects they contribute to at work. They're afraid when people see what they create without the company behind them. Afraid it will appear that they're the one who's been pretending to help lift the couch. But remember, the projects you work on professionally are made by many, many, extremely talented people, but that doesn't mean each one of them should be able to take the reins and knock it out of the park on their own. Give it a shot, and if you fail - so what? Revel in it, and most importantly, learn from it and do it again. Besides, even if your peers say your project sucks, take comfort in knowing they're still secretly jealous that you made something."

Dan was talking about independent filmmaking, but the fear that he speak of - of not being able to succeed outside of the walls of the animation studio - still applies.  The comfort zone of a big studio is hard to step away from, particularly as you get older and have families to support.  The goal shifts from having a career in animation to having a job in animation.  It's just how it is. 

But for me, the real fear is not failure, but getting too comfortable.  I remember my early years in animation, encountering old veterans with tons of great advice on technique, but terribly stale creative ideas.  I felt kind of bad for them, worse than I feel for Andrew Stanton, the director of John Carter.  At least Andrew was trying something different.   He took a big chance on a very big stage. 


Thursday, March 8, 2012

Where to learn creature animation?

One of the problems that the Visual Effects business in London has had for many years is how to find suitably trained animators - photo realistic creature work is very demanding and the skills involved can be quite different from animating character performances. One school that offers an excellent training (at very reasonable rates) is Rob Hemmings' admirable Animation A-Team. He focuses exclusively on training animators for creature work, aiming squarely at the likes of Frame Store, Double Negative, MPC and Cinesite. The reels his students come up with are hugely impressive - you can see their work, and his website here: Enjoy! - Alex

Thursday, March 1, 2012

A Lorax Anecdote Not from the Publicity Dept

I started working for Illumination Entertainment four years ago, when they were just starting out.  I work from my studio in New Jersey, in my hometown of Port Norris.  I used to live in L.A., worked there for over 20 years.  What a hell-hole.  With my wife, Donna, I bought a 120 year old commercial building, which we renovated and set up shop.  I have a half-mile commute to work.  I do storyboards on a Cintiq, which are uploaded to Illumination HQ in Santa Monica.

I started on "Despicable Me", then rolled right over onto "The Lorax", and now "Despicable Me 2".  Some California colleagues have bad-mouthed Illumination for not giving Americans jobs.  Because America ends at the San Gabriel Valley.  

"The Lorax" director Chris Renaud and me near Mac Guff Studio in Paris.
A Pixar friend who's drunk on the company Kool-Ade accused Illumination of using sweatshop labor.   He's referring to Mac Guff, the CG studio stuck in that horrible third world city of Paris, a stone's throw from the slums of the Eiffel Tower.  I visited it with my family in 2010.  They pay their animators in cigarettes!  Well, they smoke a lot, anyway.  

Right after our Paris trip, my wife started having stomach pains.  She was running for local election (and won!) and figured it was a stress-related ulcer.  At the end of December, after a series of tests, she was diagnosed with colon cancer.  It was bad. 

In January 2011, she began chemotherapy at Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia. Every other week, we would make the fifty mile trek northwest to the city .  At a cubicle-like infusion station, I would plug in my Cintiq and do Lorax storyboards while my wife sat in a recliner for six hours, having toxic chemicals fed into her bloodstream to save her life.

At first, nurses would stop in their tracks, fascinated by what I was doing.  "Are you drawing?"  they would ask.  "Amazing!" they would say.  My work never saved anyone's life.  After a few months, they got used to seeing me.  Now I'm just "that Despicable Me guy".  Donna has the same nurse each time, Annette.  I can't understate how incredibly kind she had been.  Beyond administering chemo, she will sit and chat and make a stressful experience not so stressful, all while getting her own work done.   That's a whole different kind of talent. 
Nurse Annette and me with my Cintiq at Infusion Studios.
We kept Donna's condition quiet for a long time, because some people FREAK OUT when you mention cancer.  But I did tell Illumination.  Dave Rosenbaum, the story supervisor, and Chris Renaud, the director, could not have been more understanding and supportive.  We were in the midst of production on "The Lorax". With all the production madness going on on THEIR end, they never had a problem with my wacky schedule.  That meant a lot to me.    

So when I see trailers for "The Lorax", I think of Jefferson Hospital.  Parts of every sequence I did were done during chemotherapy, in what I now call "Infusion Studios".  That big, sweeping shot when we first see the Truffala Valley? Infusion Studios.
The massive animal exodus?  Infusion Studios.
Ted's escape from Thneedville?  Infusion Studios.  
Ted visits Audrey and gets flipped?  Infusion Studios.
And so on.

Two major surgeries and a year of chemo later, Donna's doing great.  I couldn't board a better ending.
Donna loves Paris.

The Story of Animation

Another excellent new short film, this time directed by my old friend and former Blue Sky alumnus Dave Tart (we worked together on Chris Wedge's excellent Blue Sky Studios' release Robots).

Dave collaborated with the excellent Tumblehead Animation Studios in Viborg, Denmark to produce a short UPA-style film about the animation process - designed to help clients understand what actually goes in to the making of an animated project. It's short, funny, and very very well made. I'll be bookmarking it for the next time I need to explain things to a client, so I don't have to educate them at great length about what exactly is involved in the process of animation.

You can see The Story of Animation at Vimeo here:

...and you can see more about the up and coming Tumblehead Animation here:

Enjoy! - Alex