Sunday, November 26, 2023

"I'm Marty."

Meeting Marty at Nickelodeon.

In January of 2017,  Nickelodeon had just finished construction on a brand new, shiny building at the corner of Olive and Lake in Burbank.  To celebrate this massive undertaking, they threw a huge wing ding, with Big Wigs from New York and celebrities I'd never heard of. 

Amidst the VIP's, I hob-nobbed with fellow common artists, enjoying the amazing spread of food and drinks.  In the courtyard, a stage was set up where the Big Wigs spoke and people clapped.   There was a hunched over old man mingling about. He was exceptionally old.  So old, he stood out in the crowd.

"Who's that old man?"  someone asked.

"Is that Sumner Redstone?"  another asked.  Sumner was the owner of Viacom, which owned Nick.  Quite ancient, he was nonetheless still alive then, so it wasn't totally inconceivable that he could be in attendance. 

Things suddenly got very loud as the rap artist Pitbull took the courtyard stage.  Being Nickelodeon, I had assumed Pitbull would be a guy in a dog costume.  Not even close. 

After a few Pitty minutes,  I went inside the shiny new building to escape the noise.  There's an old rock and roll adage: "If it's too loud, you're too old."  To that point, there was another guy in the lobby - 'Sumner Redstone'.  As I sat alone at one of the swanky new lobby seats,  he came over and sat on a matching swanky new  couch angled perpendicular to me.  He tapped me on the knee and said very quietly, "Do you work for Nickelodeon?"

"Yes."  I nodded.

"So do I." he said.  

I looked at him incredulously.  "Really? What do you do?"

"I have a couple of shows here."  he said.  He spoke so quietly, I found myself leaning toward him to hear.   He asked, "Have you ever heard of Sid and Marty Krofft?" 

"Sure." I said. 

"I'm Marty." 

Saturday, August 12, 2023

The Basement at Gimbel's

Gimbel's department store, Philadelphia, 1905.

When the calendar turns to August, my mind always goes to the back-to-school days of childhood -  to days when summer boredom mixed with creeping anxiety about the impending school year.  On the plus side, there would new Saturday morning cartoons.  On the minus side, another year of to St. Mary Magdalen School, sadistic nuns, and Fr. McGarvey, who molested altar boys (no lie!). 

Come mid-August, we'd pile into Mom's Chevy Nova for an hour-long trek from our tiny backwater town in South Jersey to the City of Brotherly Love to get new school clothes.  It was a long, boring ride through miles and miles of farmland and woods, finally opening up to crazy fast traffic on roads that split off every which-way.  At this point, Mom would turn off the AM radio and make us shut up so she could think.  Get in the wrong lane, and we'd never be heard from again.

Crossing the Walt Whitman Bridge, I was amazed by its size and length, and terrified by its height and the traffic racing past our car on both sides.  We were entering a world I only knew from TV.  Where our town center was two blocks of boarded up buildings,  Philly was packed with old colonial brick structures to modern glass towers and grey brutalist eyesores.  Turn a corner, more buildings, turn another corner, even more buildings, all swarming with people.  And parking garages!  I had never seen a parking garage before, but here we were heading up and up and up a steep spiral driveway just to find a parking spot.  

It all seemed so fast and dangerous and loud.  And it smelled like hot pretzels and vomit. 

Mom hit the big department stores: Strawbridge & Clothier, and Gimbel's.  They weren't just stores, they were multi-level shopping mansions, complete with restaurants.  The scale, the displays...they even had moving stairs!  This was not our local Woolworth's, or even Two Guys.  This was downright fancy. 

We did a lot of hanging around while Mom browsed floor after floor of clothes. We'd amuse ourselves by hiding in the racks or making faces in the mirrors, as if there was some universal pamphlet from which every kid in America learned these shenanigans.

The last stop was the bargain basement at Gimbel's.  It was a step down in every sense of the word.  No escalator, just plain stairs to a windowless room with harsh florescent lights and generic tables with piles of clothes dumped on them.   Mom would rummage through the school uniforms for our requisite white sport shirts and blue pants - enough for a week.  Loaded with bags, we'd say bye to Philly for another year.  I don't recall Mom ever buying anything for herself.

Today would have been Mom's 94th birthday.  Sadly, she long gone, as are Strawbridge & Clothier, Gimbel's and St. Mary's.  Fr. McGarvey is in Hell now.  But Philly's still there, smelling of hot pretzels and vomit - the bittersweet scent of nostalgia.  


Sunday, May 28, 2023

The Legend of Bill Moore

Bill Moore, 1981.                 Photo by Chris Wahl

Thursdays at CalArts were brutal.  Getting to class early to pin our assignments on the long crit wall, we'd wait to be slaughtered by the old man.   Upon his arrival, the room would go silent.  He would casually stroll along the wall, surveying our assignments in his sport shirt and slacks  (or Jordache jeans!), cigarette propped in a bent back wrist, like Tim Gunn and Humphrey Bogart's love child.   Welcome to Bill Moore's design class.  

You could hear a pin drop as we held our breaths, each hoping the Angel of Death would pass over their assignment.  At last he'd pause at someone's piece and say, "Who belongs to this?"  The owner of said piece would then have to stand and "qualify" their work - that is,  explain what they did and why it works while he challenged everything they said.  This went on for three excruciating hours until each of us had our turn hemming and hawing in defense of our work.    

I came to CalArts right out of high school - a Catholic, art-hating prep school at that.  I had ZERO knowledge of color and design theory.  So on a weekly basis, in front of the class, Bill murdered me.  Gleefully.   He gleefully murdered me so much so, he took to calling me "Zombie".

But 40 years on, Zombie lives, as does Bill's voice when I work on any creative endeavor.  I hear him reciting his design mantras, "Repetition with variation....contour continuity....".  And I hear his cold, judgmental prodding, "Is that the best you can do?"  Of all my CalArts teachers - men who had worked with Walt Disney personally -  I would have never bet the most influential would be a guy who never worked a day in animation, and in fact, held a general contempt for it.   
Bill's profound influence is almost universally shared among my industry peers, as is their fear and love of him.  Anecdotes have been shared and re-shared to great laughter over the years from those fortunate enough to have been there.  But his life outside of school has been a mystery, beyond stories he'd share for shock value or laughs.  So I did some research and interviewed many former students then cobbled together this piece.  It's not so much a biography as it is the story of a legend.  

Bill would hate it. 

                                                                                                                       photo by Chris Wahl

Sunday, May 14, 2023

Godspeed, Allen Stovall

May 8th marked the latest premature loss to our hunched and goofy community with the death of Allen Stovall at the age of 69.  He was a veteran visual effects animator on features such as "Cats Don't Dance" and "Hercules". He always carried a gentle, mellow vibe, with a cat-that-ate-the-canary smile on his face.   

We first met in 1987 while doing 7-Up commercials at Duck Soup Produckions (yes, Produckions) a small commercial house in Santa Monica.   I recall going with Allen and a few others after hours to a sleepy little bar down the block called Father's Office.  Over beers, we started talking about strange dreams.  I shared a flying dream, where I floated up to a cloud which opened up to reveal a hilly, verdant village inside.  On the threshold of entering I panicked and backed off, waking myself up.

"You were Astral Travelling."  Allen said.

"What?"  I laughed.  I thought he was joking.  He wasn't.  

And so I was introduced to the concept of Astral Projection.  From what I could wrap my head around, you could travel to the after-life while still tethered to your earthly body by a silver umbilical cord.  But break that cord and you're dead!  Allen explained it with more nuance. 

The conversation somehow segued to the time he lived in Nicaragua during the counter-revolution. 

 "What?"  I laughed.  I thought he was joking.  He wasn't. 

Backstory: In 1979,  the Nicaraguan government was overthrown by the leftist, USSR backed Sandinistas, freaking out the US government.  In 1981 the right wing Contras (counter-revolutionaries) formed to overthrow the overthrowers with US backing under President Reagan.  It was quite a mess.  

Allen was very much bothered by Reagan's Contra policy and got involved - really involved.  He saved as much money as he could, working extra hours at his Filmation job.  In 1985,  he took his "She-Ra: Princess of Power" savings and joined a group of like minded Americans called "Architects and Planners in Support of Nicaragua" doing humanitarian work from the capital city of Managua.  He tasked himself with creating a comic book to teach impoverished locals, many illiterate, how to build their own homes complete with hiding places from the Contras.

Sample pages from Allen's "Manual Grafico"

This endeavor was not without risk.  One member of the American group, Ben Linder, was killed by Contras in 1987 while working on a small hydroelectric dam project.  Among the pall-bearers at his funeral were Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and....Allen Stovall.   

For all his bold adventures, Allen was no raconteur, no Commander McBragg.  He seemed to prefer listening.  So when he'd break out one of these stories, they always landed as jaw-droppers.  Allen was a very smart, unique, and most humble guy.   I last saw him about six years ago, at the Union Christmas party in the Gene Autry Museum.  He'd been fighting throat cancer with great courage for many years, and was doing pretty well at the time.   But last Monday he broke his silver tether,  joining that Nicaraguan village in the big cloud.   

Adios, Amigo!  And my sincere condolences to his wife, Jennifer.

And gratias, Al Holter, for your invaluable input with this post.


Sunday, May 7, 2023

Recipes for Pie - The Throwing Kind


Natalie Wood gets served in "The Great Race"

On a primal level, what's funnier than a pie in the face?  Pie fights were ubiquitous in the early days of film comedy.  But take a close look at those pies - they're not like Mom's.   They had a texture to them that stuck to a face long after impact, giving the actor plenty of time to mug.  As a youngster, I always wondered how those pies were made.  Thanks to the wonders of the internet, I have found recipes to share with you, FLiP reader! 

 Keystone Pie

An Atlas Obscura post describes The Keystone Kops' pies as "heavy-duty pastry and especially slurpy custard.”  Pie fights were such a signature part of those films, a bakery across the street from Mack Sennett's studio made nothing but custom pies for them. 

 Keaton Pie

Buster Keaton described his pies as two crusts glued together with a flour and water paste, so as not to collapse in the hand of the thrower.  The pies had a thick flour-and-water paste filling, to stick to the face.  They would add chocolate or strawberry to the mix if a particular pie tone was desired.  For instance, if the victim was light haired, or wearing white, the pie would be dark toned to show up on black and white film.  The pies were topped with whipped cream for impact spray.  

Stooge Pie

A Slate post reveals Moe Howard's secret pie recipe as  "whipped cream, marshmallow sauce and pumpkin filling".  The marshmallows made them extra sticky to the face, and the sound effect added impact. 

 Soupy Pie

Soupy Sales brought pie comedy into the Television era with his show in the 50's.  According to News from Me, his recipe was simply pie crust and shaving cream.  Being a live show, this allowed for fast clean up.  He would sell the impact with a bang sound effect ( a gun shot?) and by throwing his head back on impact.

Great Race Pie

This glorious Technicolor pie fight involved anywhere from 2500 to 4000 pies.  Because it was color film, the pies were filled with custard and various fruit fillings like blueberry, lemon, and raspberry.  It was shot over five days, with the stench of spoiled custard becoming so bad, the set needed to be totally cleaned and the remnants recreated for continuity. 

I always wished Twin Peaks did a pie fight sequence, but alas....

Okay, now get baking.  And if you've watched these clips and did not laugh once, we can't be friends.  

Happy throwing!


Thursday, April 13, 2023

PeaceTime: A Soaring Eagle


 I am quite pleased to present my new short, "PeaceTime: A Soaring Eagle".  It's the second of what I hope to be a series of such guided meditations for children.  I collaborated once again with Jess Lakin, who improvised the meditation in Ian Rees' recording studio.  From her recording, I came up with visuals and animated it using Adobe Animate.  Being a spare time project, this took two years for me to complete.  Ian then brought it all together with another charming and inventive score.  

As I said, I'm quite pleased.  And I hope you'll be too.   And check out my other PeaceTime video "A Royal Frog".



Thursday, March 2, 2023

One for the Ageism

There comes a day when, sitting for a haircut, we get a long look in the mirror and see one of our parents looking back at us.  Horrified, we look away.  But forced to sit in there, we steal glances;  that little eyelid sag, the onset of a jowl/turkey neck combo.  We're aging.  Like farting in an elevator, we can't escape it and hope to God no one else notices.    

So what's this have to do with animation, old man?

I'm fast approaching 40 years of working in the business.  I often meet with show runners and recruiters who weren't even born when I started out.  I don't have a problem with that, but I've noticed a pattern in these meetings.  After some chit-chat about their new project, they'll say, "So. You worked on A Goofy Movie?" surprised to see that I'm not only still alive, but working.   They gush about the film as a precious piece of their childhood.  I give them a couple of anecdotes, and the meetings end on smiles and laughter.  

Then I never hear from them again.   

As I said, this happens over and over, leaving me to only speculate.  Even though I'm a better artist than back then, it seems I've been designated as Ye Olde Guarde.

After actress Angela Landsbury died, there was an article floating around social media about how, on Murder She Wrote, she hired veteran actors who could no longer find work.  "Aged out" was the term  it used.  But unlike athletes who actually do age out, these actors could still act.  They hadn't aged out, they were shut out by the industry because they had aged.  The article, and those who commented on it, missed this point entirely.  They praised Ms Landsbury for doing what they saw as charity, oblivious to their own ageism.   

Yes, I worked in the 20th century, on paper, with pencils.  But when seemingly overnight the entire industry computerized,  I made the leap, as did most of my peers.  And we keep on leaping with each new software advance.  It's like a Squid Game challenge - miss a leap and die.   

Of all the prejudicial "-isms" out there, ageism is the one bias that everyone will experience if they live long enough.  Yet it is the most accepted - not only in the animation industry, but in society at large.  We dismiss our elders, perhaps to dismiss our own mortality.  

I would warn young readers that their day of sitting at the barber's mirror will come.  But who reads blogs anymore?