Wednesday, February 12, 2014

"Breadwinners" Is Nickelodeon's Limp Hail Mary


Nickelodeon is in the shitter. They have managed ratings increases over the course of the past year, but are still far below their ratings of a few years ago. Their money-making goliath is still Spongebob. Their new shows are flopping with both audiences and critics. And if the resistance to Legend of Korra is any indication, their executive ranks are filled with the sort of borderline-retards that one would expect of executive ranks at a company that sells ADHD-addled retrograde social concepts to children who are slowly being turned into diabetics by the breakfast cereals that Nickelodeon's primary ad buyers.

It reminds me of the scene in Big, where Tom Hank's character is in an executive meeting for the toy company at which he has managed to get a job, and he dismantles the stupid idea by another executive, an idea to compete with Transformers with buildings that turn into robots. It is a shockingly stupid idea, and yet the executive doesn't realize that. He is the perfect representation of an executive that doesn't actually have any abilities. All he can be is an "executive." As such, he can be the "executive" of anything. Why bother learning about it?

And so we come back to Nickelodeon. They are executives who can be executives and that is it. They don't understand their shows or their market. They understand charts and numbers and believe, with all the weight of their degrees and breeding behind them, that this is somehow real. They are the ones who truly understand things. Not these foolish artists. The people who actually create things are nothing more than interchangeable grunts.

Media executives are the money-sucking parasites of the media industry. No one is paid more to do less aside from investment bankers.

But I digress, as I'm known to do. This is about Nickelodeon's attempts to not be horrible.

I have to admit, I was expecting something different considering all of the hype Nickelodeon has been churning up. I was expecting something of Spongebob or Korra caliber. Instead, I got a show that was obviously animated with a Wacom tablet, Illustrator, and Flash. At least this helps to explain the strongly negative reviews of the show. This is some crazed, spastic, hyperactive shit. I don't mean shit in that this show is shit, I mean that this show is some shit. And I have now seen it.



As I mentioned, the show is getting very poor reviews. I'm not surprised. This is a web short. It was intended to be a web short. It feels like a web short. It wasn't even a terribly successful web short. But Nickelodeon damned the torpedoes and ran full speed ahead with it in a desperate attempt to find... anything. It is manic in a way that Spongebob could only ever hope to be. If children today are truly riddled with ADHD, shows like this are causing it. Hell, this show cannot slow down because it is set to a beat that is inspired by electronic music such as dubstep.

The funny thing is that this reminds me of old Fleischer shorts — a noble pedigree indeed. Just as with Betty Boop, the characters of Breadwinners bob up and down at all times to the music. Everything is alive. This should be a good thing, but instead the show just appears unfocused and manic. Importantly, even the Fleischer shorts were never intended to be seen in quick succession. They were four-minute doses of madness that showed before feature films.



The above video is a comparison between the original video and the Nickelodeon version. In case you wanted evidence that Nickelodeon is still just as moronic as it has always been, look no further than the changes made. For example, when Swaysway smacks Buhdeuce around, in the Nickelodeon version, he is using a piece of bread. That may seem like a random change, but it fits in perfectly with Nickelodeon's bizarre and idiotic conservativism; with the toast, no direct, violent physical contact is taking place. Similarly, both uses of the word "die" and its variants have been removed. "Die a fiery death" was changed to "end up roast beef." And "We didn't even die once" was changed to "we're still alive still."

While these don't qualify for the pantheon of great examples of television censorship, they reveal a company so utterly crippled by idiotic, corporate tampering as to be barely functional. No wonder Homestar Runner repeatedly rejected Nickelodeon's entreaties.

It reminds me of an episode of Behind Closed Doors With Joan Lunden where she profiled Domino's Pizza (trust me, I'm going somewhere with this). Amazingly, the shake-up of the company that was to come in a few years was presaged by the show. In one part of the episode, she sits in on a meeting between Domino's marketing executives (the worst kind of executives) and the team from the advertising company that is producing a television commercial.

In the commercial, a very small dog is attacking a man's leg and making over-the-top sounds, as though a bear were mauling a couch. After the viewing of the prototype commercial, one of the executives leans forward at the table and says "are we sure we want to have that level of violence in the commercial?" Uhhh... what?

My father worked in corporate America for a long time. One of the things that he noticed is that people sitting in a meeting will lean forward, produce words, then lean back, place their hands in their lap, and relax, confident that they have just done "work." Of course, they haven't. Only someone with an MBA could ever believe that this was work. Work requires actual work, not simply asking stupid questions like some over-paid, wannabe Socrates.

In these meetings, sometimes actual work would get put on the table, be it a project, simple task, or something requiring actual insight and research. When this happened, those surrounding the table would physically push away from the table. The idea of real work was literally repulsive and caused actual, manifest behavior.

I saw this in the video of the Domino's executives. I actually saw it. They did it on camera. It blew my mind. I honestly did not believe that people this useless existed in the real world. But exist they do, and they get their fingers into everything.

As such, when you see changes that seem bizarre and pointless, that is their handiwork. The executives make these changes because they are hard to argue against because they make little sense and yet can be couched in terms that make them appear rational. It also lets them make changes without spending too much time or energy, thus allowing them to run about, infecting projects.

Changes for the sake of changes to appear as though they are doing work. It's the raison d'être of the media executive.

This show does nothing but confirm what Marc Summers said about Nickelodeon: the network is going into the dumper. Just as with Symbionic Titan's cancellation at Cartoon Network, all that Nickelodeon cares about is selling garbage. They don't care about quality. They don't care about positive change. They care about selling junk based on terrible shows. All they want to be is a mechanism to suck up money from a population.

In its current state, Nickelodeon is destined to die.

In late January, the CEO of Bayer said that "We did not develop this medicine for Indians. We developed it for western patients who can afford it." He is an executive in the truest American sense. Compare that to George Merck, then CEO of Merck, in 1929.
We try never to forget that medicine is for the people. It is not for the profits. The profits follow, and if we have remembered that, they have never failed to appear. The better we have remembered it, the larger they have been.
One chases quality, and expects that profit will follow; the other simply chases profit. One is a leader, innovator, and pioneer; the other is an overpaid bean counter with a fancy degree. One is worthwhile; the other should simply be euthanized.

It's time to euthanize Nick. Time to make way for something better.

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Boxtrolls Is The Best Movie You Won't Go See When it Comes Out


How do I know that? Because almost no one went to go see Coraline or Paranorman when they came out. Instead, people will go and see Frozen or some equally overstuffed piece of claptrap. Make no mistake, there is more creativity, soul, spirit, and artistry in a single frame of Paranorman than in the whole of Disney's work from the past fifteen years. I say that with the deepest respect and admiration for those who work at Disney, and to be fair to them, the failings of Disney's work are not their fault. It is the fault of the soulless pieces of executive garbage that run the corporation.

So, yeah. Go see The Boxtrolls.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Another Random Betty Boop

It's been awhile since my last post. Life has a tendency to get in the way of such things. But here's another Betty Boop vector. As with all of them, if you would like an editable vector .png file that's openable in Illustrator and Fireworks, send me an e-mail. I can't post them in Picasa or on Flickr since both services mangle your images when you upload them. They are absolutely not left untouched.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

In Defense of Lino DiSalvo And Disney's Frozen

I came out of blogging hiatus for this one.

Head of Theatrical Animation for Frozen, Lino DiSalvo, has triggered a shit storm with some comments about animating female characters.

“Historically speaking, animating female characters are really, really difficult, ’cause they have to go through these range of emotions, but they’re very, very — you have to keep them pretty and they’re very sensitive to — you can get them off a model very quickly. So, having a film with two hero female characters was really tough, and having them both in the scene and look very different if they’re echoing the same expression; that Elsa looking angry looks different from Anna (Kristen Bell) being angry.”

Taken at face value, this is a collossal pile of garbage. The problem is that this statement cannot be taken at face value. This statement does not just represent him, his work, or the film; it represents all of Disney. His statement is the end result of a complex system of artists, writers, marketers, designers, executives, and blithering idiots on all levels and from all corners of Disney Corp.

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You have to ask yourself, why would he say something that even vis-a-vis the rest of the Disney catalog, is entirely false. Look at Pixar's various females. Look at the characters in Bolt. Disney's two greatest feats of character animation of the past thirty years, Ursula and Yzma, were both females. He knows full well that it's very easy to create a female that is loaded with character and energy. He has to know. As such, his statement must mean something else.

What is not easy is creating a female that fulfills all of the other requirements of a massive, vertically-integrated, monstrosity like an animated Disney tent-pole film. These characters must be pretty, and accessible, and not too complex, and must sell toys, and fit into the Disney Princess Line, and sell comics, and be on Halloween costumes, and this, and that, and everything. Yeah! That sounds like a nightmare!

Basically, I think that this guy stuttering was not him trying to avoid insulting people, it was him trying to complain about the difficulties of working within Disney without saying that working within Disney sucks! He was complaining about being the factory grunt in charge of creating grist for the Disney mill. He is only a single part of a massive machine that produces everything from branded toothbrush heads to Happy Meals. His work can never stand alone as is. It must always play nice with the other parts of the company.

Let's pick apart his statement a bit to figure out how and why this is so.

First, when he says "female characters," he actually means lead female characters. He's not talking about Ursula or Mrs. Potts. He's talking about Belle and Jasmine. He's talking about princesses.

Next, he puts the concept of emotions in conflict with keeping them pretty. Basically, he's saying that the character needs to be kept attractive at all times while still displaying emotion. That's true of every Disney film. Go watch any Disney movie. Watch the emotions. Not a single Disney Princess is an ugly crier.

He then reveals that his situation is only one part of a broader system when he talks about emotions getting off a model. All characters are designed with character sheets that come from character designers and usually have pages of facial expression sketches. If an animator gives a character too much emotion, it usually falls off the "spec" for that character. And when a character is intended to be as bland as possible, it's going to be super-freaking-easy to fall off "spec."

This applies to the males as well, just not to the same extreme. There is some flexibility in lead male design, but not much. Aladdin was boring as hell, and the princes in Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and Snow White were ambulatory coma patients.

In short, lead characters must be boring, bland, attractive, and as ever more people are attacking Disney for, white. How the hell does an artist work within those boundaries? Apparently, by creating the same character over and over and over.

But why the hell is that the case? Why is Snow White a soulless cypher while the dwarves are literal embodiments of character? It's because the cartoonish characters are intended to be entertaining; the lead characters are intended to be shells — avatars that carry retrograde sociocultural views in ways that would be subtle if they weren't so fucking blatant. They epitomize ideals so deeply entrenched in our zeitgeist that we may not even be aware of many of them. There is a word to specifically describe what these avatars carry: mores- folkways of central importance accepted without question and embodying the fundamental moral views of a group.

As such, they need to be somewhat soulless. If they have souls, if they have character, than that would overwhelm the underlying values that we are subconsciously projecting onto them.

Disney's cartoon characters, such as the dwarves, bad guys, any sidekicks — actually, anyone who isn't the white, cisgendered, heterosexual couple at the center of the story — are free to be fully realized characters. We can love them, hate them, relate or not relate. That's because it's the lead characters that are intended to be the characters with whom we actually relate. For me, that's what makes these characters so malicious. They are the characters in whose roles we see ourselves. No one sees themself as Cogsworth.

(Conversely, fans of animation universally despise the lead characters and instead spend all of their time waxing poetic about the bad guys. Seriously, go look at the list of Annie Award winners for Character Animation in a Feature Production. Not a single one is a lead character.)

An excellent exemplar for this are Disney Theme Parks characters. They have characters and then they have face characters. These are the people that are not hidden behind masks and must speak and directly interact with park guests. The face characters are always the leads. They're the pretty ones. They are the ones that speak and smile and emote. They are the ones who are, essentially, human.

By keeping the characters bland, the maximum number of people can effectively project themselves into the fantasy, which means maximum profit when time comes to sell toys. At least theoretically, this needn't be bad. Theoretically, these could be classified as archetypes. It becomes pernicious when that also means catering to the worst elements of our social mores. Here, archetypes are used as tools for reinforcing those bad elements instead of being used as tools to make an otherwise good, complex story relatable in a universal way.

Disney isn't just selling a product, they are reinforcing and encouraging negative elements of our society that we are fighting to get rid of! As we fight to eradicate homophobia, sexism, racism, classism, ageism, and all other forms of prejudice, Disney is actively fighting against us because they know that many people want these prejudices to be true.

We may not admit it and we may not really think about the ramifications of these stories, but we want them. Some of us want them so bad it hurts. We want our princes and princesses; we want to be beautiful, white, straight, and rich; we want our fairy tales; we want a reality that plays to our complex underlying mores and doesn't challenge us. Disney plays like crazy to these prejudices.

For example, go Google "Princess." Princess Cruise Lines is the first entry, but Disney Princesses are the second, and the image search is nothing but Disney. The princess fantasy existed before Disney, but sweet mother of God has Disney expanded its significance. At this point, Disney fucking owns the word.


Disney's face characters are not products in themselves. They are vessels that Disney crafts that are then filled with prejudice. Some of this prejudice comes from Disney, but much of it comes from those eating it up; it is a cultural problem, not just a Disney problem.

So do not attack Lino for his quote, attack all of Disney, and indeed all of society, for what the quote represents. It represents a culture of sexism, racism, ageism (ewww), rapacious capitalism, and a lack of creative vision that has been rotting the company from the inside for years.

Walt Disney wasn't a perfect guy, but he was interested in art. The Disney of today couldn't care less about art, as Michael Eisner famously said. The Disney of today is only interested in creating a movie that fits in with what Disney actually sells: junk.

The actual creative element at Disney is a mere supporting role, intended to do nothing more than generate grist that can be milled into junk that is manufactured in China, sold in New York, and eventually tossed into the trail of trash, left through time and space, by our society as it charges drunkenly forward, obsessed with a corrupt fairy tale about itself.

What a magical kingdom we have built.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Why Michael Eisner Failed

What a coincidence, as I am reading my ongoing tale of sturm und drang in the form of the rise of Disney and the subsequent creation of Dreamworks, a study comes out showing why Michael Eisner failed. It paints in raw, scientific language, the very impression that I think any person would take away from the Books Keys to the Kingdom and Disney War.

Both of those books showed a relationship between Michael Eisner and the late Frank Wells as one where Eisner would go off into a bout of mental and verbal diarrhea, and then Frank Wells would jump in, clean it all up, and get it ready for prime time, as it were. After Wells died, Eisner lost that binary partner that took his ideas and work and made them functional elements of a grand machine.

What this illustrates very well for me is that the high-powered people at the top of company are frequently, if not primarily, not important. What is important is the machine around them. This just makes me even angrier when you see the chief executives and presidents of major corporations earning tens of millions in salary while their average employee barely brings home $50k. They think, nay, they are convinced that they are critically important.

In defense of Eisner, and I think this a very important point since so much of Eisner's later tenure was defined by conflict with Jeffrey Katzenberg, is that he was correct not to give Katzenberg Frank Wells' job. Katzenberg is another high-powered, hard-charging executive type, and that would have likely either only amplified Eisner's problems, or caused so much internal conflict that it could have ripped Disney apart.

But again, in defense of Katzenberg, he appears to be more aware of this limitation than Eisner was. Katzenberg is famous in Hollywood for surrounding himself with powerful women -- a group that is more than slightly underrepresented in most studios. This drive to associate with those that are not simply more hard-charging white guys has undoubtedly played a large role in his ongoing success.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Large Layoffs Expected at DreamWorks


These events couldn't possibly be more of a co-ink-ee-dink for me. I recently finished Disney War and have since moved on to The Men Who Would Be King. Both were good and go well with each other. For those who aren't up on the history. Jeffrey Katzenberg (the K in DreamWorks SKG) was the head of Disney Studios from 1984 to 1994. After his falling out with Michael Eisner, he joined up with bosom chum David Geffen and (apparently) child-like airhead Steven Spielberg to form DreamWorks.

The studio was big on dreams and short on actual success for a long time. For every huge hit, they seemed to have a dozen films that didn't do very well. This situation came to a head in 2005, when the company sold itself to Paramount, but not before it spun off DreamWorks Animation in 2004.

DreamWorks Animation has tried its best to develop a solid financial foundation. The standard strategy to achieve this is to broaden the productive base outside of just movies. Most major studios rely on television shows to provide constant revenues, and DreamWorks on the whole hasn't been terribly successful with this.

Because of this, neither the studio nor its parent has ever been on terribly solid financial footing, thus triggering things like today's announcement. This is unfortunate, because frankly, we need another studio out there producing high quality animated films other than Disney. Every other studio has completely, freaking failed to do anything on the level of the two D's. Sony produces utter shit like Planet 51. Fox has Ice Age and that's about it. We have two bright spots in Illumination Entertainment -- makers of Despicable Moi -- and ILM's Rango, but other than that, nothing. Disney and DreamWorks are it.

I hope the dispossessed workers land on their feet. Even better, I hope that they pollinate out into the wider industry, triggering further evolution and development of not just the technologies and art, but of the business itself. Because one menacing shadow lurking behind the layoffs, and a point underlined in The Men Who Would Be King, is that the old business model isn't working as well as it once did. If companies don't act with foresight and innovation, the animation world of tomorrow will be dominated by names we've not yet heard of.

Come to think of it, perhaps that's not such a bad thing after all.