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.


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.

Friday, February 1, 2013

WATCH THIS: Paperman

Paperman premiered before Wreck-It Ralph. I liked it. The fusion of 2D style with 3D technology is something that CGI artists have been trying to do for years, but before this, the efforts have been... less than convincing. I like CGI, don't get me wrong, but even the best work of CGI animators pales in comparison to the lively, organic look of hand-drawn work. I am certain that the greatest animated CGI works are in the future, as the ability to merge the hand and the polygon becomes ever greater. Big kudos goes to the technical team who made this possible.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

WATCH THIS: Salvador Dali & Disney's Destino

Animation is such a wonderful medium for art. Unlike film, which has a limited development life-span because actors age, production can start, stop, start, stop, and even let an animation project stagnate for decades before finishing. Perhaps the greatest example of this is The Thief and the Cobbler, but another project followed a similar path: Destino.

Destino was a pet project of Salvador Dali and Walt Disney Studios, specifically a single animator. Sadly, the studio faced difficult times post-World War II, and the project was dropped for over fifty years.

Roy Disney discovered the finished story boards and decided to complete the project, and we should all be thankful. While it's not as... yeah... as Un Chien Andalou, it is a visual tour de force in its own right. More to the point, it perfectly manifests Roy Disney's belief in art over commercialism — success follows artistic integrity. Sometimes this is true, other times not. But what's important is that legacies are built upon art, and this work helps to further cement the legacies of Dali, Disney, and "that idiot," Roy.

Walt Disney y Salvador Dali - Destino HD from Ivan Wenger on Vimeo.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

WATCH THIS: Clone High

The late 90's and early 2000's saw a number of funny, inventive, more adult-oriented cartoons. Almost all of them failed, and without Adult Swim there to pick up the slack, they fell into obscurity. In some cases, this was a significant shame, as it is with Clone High. It aired for a single season on Teletoon in Canada and MTV in the US, and was then unable to secure further funding.

The animation is abysmal, but everything has sufficient character. It's the ridiculous scenarios and voice-overs that bring the show over the top. It's a long-lost gem and you should watch the entire season.

And just for fun, here's a great take on the cast from The Atrix over at DeviantArt. My favorite is easily the Principal.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Men-Ups: Pin-ups With Men

I don't know how I missed this, because this is awesome. The entire series of photos is available on Flickr.

As many of you know, I am both the author of this website -- which is, or at least was, predicated on the objectification of women -- and am also a rabid feminist. I live in a state of constant cognitive dissonance. So something that is both pin-up oriented, while also illustrating the ridiculous portrayal and objectification that takes place, fits neatly in between both viewpoints.

It reminds me of the fan-freaking-tastic fan art of The Avengers, all posed like they are constantly posing Black Widow: the booty shot.

Image by Kevin Bolk.

The only way this would have been better is if they had taken the photographs and had a digital painter do the full Elvgren treatment, thus allowing for the hilariously exaggerated facial expressions common to pin-ups.

An important point of discussion is how this posing is assumed to be silly by those making the images, but the posing of the women is not. Obviously, that's the point that they are making, but it is still worth emphasizing that we have had our perceptions of women so wildly sexualized, that utterly stupid portrayals of them are not only normalized, but visually appealing.

This again comes back to something that I have dealt with for years: the non-sexualization of men. The idea of a strongly sexualized male in imagery is almost exclusively associated with homosexuality. And while I would never claim that this particular arrangement has been harder on men than women, it has done damage to us. I have spent my entire life convinced, on some level, that I am unattractive. One of the causes of this is because me, a male, is never portrayed as visually arresting, or sexy. I could never be an object of desire. (I have since overcome the majority of these issues and generally feel alright about myself.)

Oh sure, some men are portrayed as attractive, but it has more to do with their wrapping than their physical form. Their jacket is cut just so. Their car is expensive. Look at GQ or Esquire magazines' covers. The body is not attractive, it is the clothing, the watch, the style that is important. The body is ugly.

Perhaps, then, it is not surprising that the photographer who created these images is himself a homosexual. He must be keenly aware of the dichotomy of male and female portrayals in the media, and that straight men are always portrayed in a particular way.

Obviously, things are changing. Since the 1980's, we've seen an increasing number of media portrayals of the male body as specifically attractive, even though they are not specifically sexualized. Today, we live in an odd mish-mash of media portrayals. We have advertisements that, at least initially, seem to sexualize men but are actually sexualizing women -- advertisements like BOD. In them, the men are still doing something, usually sports, and are not simply out on display, and the message of the ads is identical to those of AXE or any other male-aimed advertisements from the past: get laid by hot women.

We also have Dolce & Gabbana advertisements and their ilk that literally drip with homoeroticism.

I look forward to the day when males are sexualized to the same degree as females. Objectification is fine, because for all of our wondrous humanity, we are also objects to one another. Unfortunately for women in our society, that objectification is concomitant with ignoring of their humanity -- they are reduced to nothing but an object.

There was a time when the male form was seen as a glorious object: Classical Greece. This was replaced with the adoration of the female form in Hellenistic Greece, which has unfortunately remained ever since. I want a return to the recognition of the male form as an object it its own right.