Saturday, October 24, 2009

In Anticipation Of...

I am seriously looking forward to The Princess and the Frog. It's a beautiful throwback to classic Disney musical production. Also great is that the animation is a throwback. Disney was producing some great-looking stuff throughout the 80's, and had one of the most inventively drawn bad guys in history with Ursula, whom I still consider a high water mark in bad guy animation.

Disney started falling off of a cliff by Pocahontas, which was stunningly rigid, bland, and lacking any semblance of character. Even the "cute" sidekicks sucked. The Hunchback of Notre Dame was better, but not by much. And Mulan was abysmal! Who the hell did they think they were? Genndy Tartakovsky?

Again, the "animate by focus group" mentality remained strong in Atlantis and Treasure Planet, both of which bombed in the box office. Home on the Range was better, but still played and looked like an overgrown TV show pilot, which, frankly, I suspect it was. Disney never misses a chance to drive a property into the dirt.

Of course, after grinding out pieces of shit for a decade, Disney declares that CGI has "killed" traditional animation. Don't you just love how company executives think? "We've been failing repeatedly. It's obviously the market and not me, because I have an MBA."

But the guys from Pixar are real movie guys. They know animation, they know story, and they know business. They know that all the MBAs in the world are only icing on the cake. You have to start with quality.

Toy Story 2 was good in spite of Disney executives, who just wanted to push anything out the door. They fired John Lasseter in the 80's, only to return to him as savior. They marginalized CGI, then reaped the rewards years later.

That's why I have such high hopes for The Princess and the Frog. Almost exactly twenty years after Disney was saved with a good, old-fashioned musical, so it stands to do it again.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

120Hz Hurts.

I hate new 120Hz and 240Hz modes on televisions and I know exactly why.

Many people complain of the "camcorder look" produced by the 120Hz modes on new, modern TV's. Basically, the Hz rating of a television is the number of times per second that the screen changes. So, theoretically, the TV is capable of producing 120 frames per second. Sadly, TV broadcasts are 30fps, and movies are 24fps. Even most video games don't go higher than 60fps.

Now theoretically, 120Hz is a holy grail for home film reproduction? Punch it into your calculator, it's the lowest common denominator for 30 and 24, and that's big. That means that every frame of a film's 24fps multiplies into an equal number of screen frames. Specifically, five frames. Currently, televisions refreshing at 60Hz have to perform an action known as the 2:3 pulldown. That's the only way to distribute 24fps evenly across 60 frames.

But with 120Hz, oh baby, each frame from the film's 24fps is displayed on screen for an equal 5 screen frames. Or with television, each of the television signal's 30fps is displayed 4 times. Or each of a video games 60fps is displayed twice. This means that video from any source is reproduced smoothly.

Unfortunately, television manufacturers are trying to find ways to advertise their sets beyond what should be done. This piece of marketing shit is called motion interpolation. We'll use film for example. Instead of displaying each frame from the film five times, resulting in 24 images seen by the viewer every second, the television will create new frames from the information contained in the 24 original frames to fill the full 120 that the TV is capable if displaying. Theoretically, this should result in smoother motion, without any of the jittery display commonly associated with film footage on TV.

Too bad it doesn't work. Everything in modern video technology is based around the old limitations. DVD's were mastered and the films were filmed with 24fps in mind. Television is made with 30fps in mind. Trying to interpolate your way past it cannot remove some of the details. Film looks realistic because it is the closest thing to human sight we can achieve with images captured. If something is moving quickly, 24fps gives us motion blur. Trying to interpolate frames in between that results in abnormal motion, because the human eye does not see in 120 perfectly distinct moments every second.

Things blur and flex as they whiz past. They do not go past us quickly while remaining perfectly clear the whole time. 120Hz does not capture how we see the world. 24fps does. Just think about taking a photo. If you set the shutter speed to 1/24 sec, and have someone move, the motion is captured in the frame. If you set the shutter speed to 1/120, you have much more of a "freeze-frame" look, with more detail, but less motion. In early cinema, they discovered that the amount of motion and detail captured in 24fps best approximated human vision. When they first started making film, they could have gone faster. They could have done 30fps, or 45, or 52, or any other random number, but they didn't. They did 24 because it looks right. 120 looks terribly, horribly wrong.

This is especially problematic for animation, which tries to approximate that sense of motion with each frame. For example, unlike something that was filmed, animation might use weird, exaggerated frames to make the in-film motion appear smoother or more realistic. Interpolating frames in between frames that were drawn specifically with 24fps in mind results in a unsettling, too-smooth look that seems to run too fast, because most of the interpolated frames are trying to "catch up" to the actual frames from the movie.

This is not a matter of taste, where I'm merely used to 24 and will get used to 120. 120Hz interpolation is breaking what was made. It cannot possibly alter everything about film creation to make it look good. If a film was made with 120fps, and everything was calibrated to make that 120 look good, that would work just fine. But we don't have that. We have 24fps, or 30fps, which looks like shit when bumped up to an artificial 120fps.

My advice to you, if you buy a new TV, find out how and TURN THAT SHIT OFF. Just say no... to interpolation. Or, if you prefer, friends don't let friends interpolate. Or, give a hoot, don't interpolate. Only you can prevent interpolation. Or one that actually rhymes: unless you hate, don't interpolate.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Bimbo Prototype 1

Ok, I realize that Bimbo is not exactly a Vixen. Actually, it's kind of questionable as to what Bimbo is at all. Supposedly, he's a dog, but he hasn't looked remotely like a dog for most of his existence. Dizzy Dishes made him look kind of like some anthropomorphic block of rubber with a hat. Still, He's an integral part of cartoon history and Betty Boop's history specifically, being her ostensible boyfriend, companion, side-kick, and friend.

So I'm creating a series of images dedicated to him. I'll likely do Koko the Clown as well. This is a very early piece of work; no more than twenty minutes of work are in this image. Still, I like uploading early work because early, rough pieces frequently look incredibly cool. Characters missing bits of their construct look so alien as to be almost unsettling. So yeah, enjoy.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Betty Boop Film Class Part 6

In between Bimbo's Initiation and the seminal Minnie the Moocher came a few less memorable Betty cartoons. They're noteworthy for seeing the beginning of Betty's rise from secondary character behind Bimbo to being the primary star of Fleischer Studios.

Bimbo's Express is the first cartoon to list Betty as one of the stars. She was on screen for less than a minute during Bimbo's Initiation, and perhaps has total screen time of no more than five minutes in all previous cartoons.

I love Bimbo's Express because many of the details are such a great throwback to a time not that long ago, but where things like horse-drawn moving carts are represented as though the audience would recognize them as every-day objects. Because they did. It was only 78 years ago, and yet a scant 60% of the nation's households had electricity. If you look at rural areas, that number dropped to less than 10%.

This cartoon isn't very memorable from a story or direction standpoint. The energy is low and lots of stuff seems pointless. The cartoon basically starts three minutes in. I LOVE how Bimbo suddenly turns into a tenor at 5:05. Coherency was not a big concern for Fleischer. It should be noted that their lip-syncing is getting much better by this point. They're still missing some of the finer principles, but what they have gets the job done.

A month later would bring Minding the Baby, which is notable for some of the most extensive uses of lip-synced dialogue up to this point, and also for some of the most explicit language in the series. At 3:15, Betty sings a song to try and get Bimbo to come over, since her parents are both gone, and all but states that it's a booty call. Bimbo responds by saying his parents are having a fight over an ice man (again, a great reference) who keeps coming over even though they have an electric refrigerator. A not-subtle reference to his mom having an affair.

Minding the Baby is otherwise forgettable, but the historical references are fun, especially the "Stuck Market" newspaper the baby reads. Remember, this was 1931. We were only two years into the Great Depression.

Two months would pass until the next Betty cartoon, and by now Betty is the only character getting top billing. This is a Betty cartoon. It's also time to say hello to the full-human Betty for the very first time.

Mask-A-Raid is another cartoon that seems to follow no rhyme or reason. There is total chaos on screen for five solid minutes. While not as weird as Bimbo's Initiation, it's up there.

The next film, Jack and the Beanstalk, was released after Mask-A-Raid but had begun development earlier.

I think it may have been a leftover from Grim Natwick's days, judging from the design of Betty and Bimbo. Regardless, this is the last cartoon to feature Betty as a dog. I guess it's debatable as to whether she's a dog in the next cartoon, Dizzy Red Riding Hood, since her ears are hidden the whole time, but since the overall design follows Mask-a-Raid more closely, I'm assuming she's human.

UPDATE: Where Jack & The Beanstalk fits in is something interesting that I didn't touch on. Bimbo's design is most useful in this cartoon. First, it can't be too old, since the animation principles for lip-syncing were more advanced than in Mysterious Mose. Second, Bimbo's head has become uniformly white by the time of Jack. Unfortunately, many Bimbo cartoons are not available online for me to watch, so I have to go on this website, which indicates that Bimbo had gone white, as seen The Bum Bandit, in Tree Saps.

The same website lists The Herring Murder Case as the debut of the modern Bimbo. I'm assuming that the redesign happened in time for production of Bimbo's Initiation, which is the second cartoon to feature the modern Bimbo. This Bimbo is seen in all following pictures except for Jack & The Beanstalk.

The lines in Bimbo's eyes are very simplistic in Jack, so much so that they almost never fully surround his pupils. By Silly Scandals, and even The Bum Bandit, Bimbo's eyes were much more coherent as opposed to just two dots and a line for defining expression. So I think that Jack had begun production before Bum Bandit. Jack & The Beanstalk may very well be the first cartoon put into production with the newer Bimbo design, but since I can't find some cartoons to watch, I can't be sure.

Still, this means that Jack sat on the shelf for nearly a year before being released. I wonder what was going on behind the scenes. Whatever it was, Jack & the Beanstalk is definitely a relic from Grim Natwick, released after he left.


Dizzy Red Riding Hood isn't terribly noteworthy, I only make mention of it because you can see more directly that with Disney's work the connection between Japanese animation and American animation, which was the stated inspiration of the early anime and manga authors. The wolf is very strongly similar to later Japanese work, so much so that he looks like Sonic the Hedgehog.

Much like Minding the Baby, Betty and Bimbo partake in actions at the end that represent sex. I also think that his usage of the word eat might be a rather blatant reference to oral sex. It's a tough call. It's first recorded usage is 1927, which usually means it had been around in the vernacular for some time before, but Fleischer might not have known that context at all and was just using it to describe passion.

Next up is Any Rags. This is a serious throwback for people today, to the point where the setup makes almost no sense.

The viewer can kind of piece together what's supposed to be going on, but only with a complete historical context do the events seem coherent. Bimbo is playing the role of a rag man, or rag-and-bone man. Believe it or not, we had one of these in North Kingstown, RI up until the late 1990's, which is the only reason why I knew what it was.

This cartoon is also the first of Koko the Clown's return episodes, where, strangely, he's apparently gay. It's funny that the effete stereotype of a gay man was already entrenched in popular culture way the hell back in 1931. It's also of extreme interest that this gay character is displayed in a positive way. I wonder if Fleischer had gay friends or family members. History seems to indicate pretty strongly that none of Fleischer Studio's primaries were gay, so it makes you wonder.

Take note of how, even though by now Betty was the most popular of Fleischer's characters, that cartoons starring Betty had not really made it through the production pipes. Even though Betty gets top billing, this is very much a Bimbo cartoon. Betty is on screen for a scant 23 seconds. I counted. But, in that short time, we get to see her bra twice. Ohh, Fleischer. You pervert.

Moving on, we have Boop-Oop-A-Doop. Notice how we still have not gotten to the point where the cartoons are completely about Betty. Over half of the screen time is taken up with random characters and Bimbo being an ass. And lord knows why he's trying to sell peanuts to his little brother from Minding the Baby, who appears to be be voiced by Mae Questel. It's also Koko's first non-cameo appearance, after his five seconds of screen time in Any Rags. Appropriately, Koko is drawn out of the inkwell.

Boop-Oop-A-Doop continues the sexual themes of Betty cartoons, with the ringmaster being overtly perverted. He gropes Betty and makes an obvious insinuation that if she wants to keep her job, she better put out. Correct me if I'm wrong, but this is the first film portrayal of workplace harassment in history. This cartoon also references Betty's Boop-Oop-A-Doop in a noun form, subtly implying that it means her virginity.

And that's that. After all of this build-up, we come to Betty Boop as one of the most persistent and iconic stars of the cartoon age, and Minnie the Moocher, one of the greatest works in cartoon history. These seven cartoons represent an immense amount of growth in cartoon and animation principles over less than a year. We saw the push for ever-more explicit sexual references, only to be killed in less than three years by the Hays Commission. We saw the exeunt of Grim Natwick, Betty's founding animator, who would go on to a job as lead animator on Walt Disney's Snow White and mentor to Chuck Jones. Basically, we saw the solidification of modern cartoon principles as we saw the solidification of Betty herself. The rise of Betty IS the rise of cartoons.