February 22, 2010

I used to read constantly. In the last two years, I have found it very difficult to read anything. I used to have a policy about finishing everything I start. Recently, I find it difficult to finish any book easily, if I manage to read it all the way through.

Last year, in late summer, I received the eighth volume of Walt's People: Talking Disney with the Artists who Knew Him by Didier Ghez, also the man behind the Disney History blog. After reading the contents and dedication to Emru Townsend, founder of Frames Per Second, I thought to myself, "Surely I will read this soon," as I put it on the top of my pile.

And there it stayed for several months, as life sped on.

I'd read previous volumes and knew I was in for a treat. Two weeks ago I reminded myself of that, and during one of my busiest times ever, I took the time to read this latest volume. Walt's People is an anthology of about three dozen interviews with different people who knew Walt Disney, interviewed by different people, including animation historians and other animators, over quite a span of time.

I am probably the last reviewer to mention this book, but I had to chime in:

I couldn't put it down. What's great about this series is that these interviews are not chopped up versions of interviews, with the author's tracts including a lot of supposition instead of actual direct quotes from the subjects. On paper, this is the closest we get to being in the room.

Most of the interviews brought knew information to light or recontextualized information as I previously understood it. Some just made me laugh. The interview that stood out for me was Carl Barks. You definitely get a sense of the man through his words. Also notable were the recollections of Retta Davidson. Some interviews are interesting because they give you all the goods; others are equally successful because you feel like you need to know more. Hopefully, this book will answer many questions for readers but also lead them to ask more, and perhaps spur on future historians.

Luckily, volume 9 is in the works. So start reading volume 8 now in preparation.

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October 6, 2009
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Blu-ray Disc Review

SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (1937, Blu-ray released October 6, 2009 - MSRP $39.99)

Stunning. Absolutely stunning. I wish I could turn back time to watch the gorgeous visual presentation of Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Blu-ray disc for the first time, all over again. Experiencing this, the first Diamond Edition release from Walt Disney Home Entertainment's new line of classic films on Blu-ray, was akin to feeding my hungry eyes a platter of pure 2D animated magic.

I don't think I really need to run down the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs for you, do I? (Read the full original English text by the Brothers Grimm here, if you don't know it yet.) Disney's interpretation is pretty much a classic by now. And though it feels it's being told in a style that's far from contemporary, Snow White holds up. Enough about the the story, let's get to the meat of my commentary. Let's talk about the Blu-ray disc itself!

Robert A. Harris, the famous film historian and preservationist responsible for restoring innumerable films like Lawrence of Arabia (in 1989), Spartacus (1991), My Fair Lady (1994), Vertigo (1996) Rear Window (1998) and more recently the Godfather films, has stated the Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Blu-ray disc is "...essential to any serious collection." I'd say that's putting it lightly. This disc is as good as home video gets. Disney has given the film, which many consider to be one of the most important in cinema history, the royal treatment. It looks and sounds absolutely terrific! The studio could have scrubbed it to the bone, removed all grain, sacrificed detail, chopped it to fit your widescreen plasma display or performed any number of operations that would have "improved" the film for modern home video audiences. Instead, they've allowed Lowry Digital to carefully bring the 1937 animated to life, scanning all elements at 4K and using the same proprietary technology that has taken care of classics from The Wizard of Oz to the Star Trek TV series. I can't imagine Blu-ray getting any better than this.

That being said, this Blu-ray presentation won't be for everyone. There will be a portion of the audience disappointed by the warts-and-all transfer presented on the disc. There are damaged or misplaced cells within the film which cause it to appear out of focus for a time. This is fine detail that even Walt Disney wouldn't have noticed during the creation of the film because of the lack of resolution of the Technicolor process. The studio could have digitally "corrected" this effect but chose instead to leave the work as it was created. Brilliant! Again, this is what Blu-ray should be.

By the same token, the sound on the disc is fantastic! I'm sorry for all the unadulterated raving and praise I'm showering on this release but, man, they've really knocked it out of the park. The 7.1 DTS-Master Audio track could have been really insulting and over the top, translating the original mono elements into some surround-sound abomination. But again, Disney provides a truly dynamic presentation while remaining true to the spirit of the original work. And just to cover all of their bases, the studio has included the original mono track, for all you purists out there.

The bonus features on the Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Blu-ray disc are wonderful but problematic. Let's start with the wonder. There is so much stuff packed on to two Blu-ray discs! I spent hours combing through every nook and cranny of this thing - a commentary track hosted by historian John Canemaker and featuring comments by Walt Disney himself, deleted scenes and storyboards, short documentaries and the Hyperion Studios tour which encompasses hours upon hours of shorts (Silly Symphonies in HD!), galleries, featurettes and audio snippets. And don't even get me started about the creepy "Magic Mirror" which greets you every time you put the disc in. That thing will talk to you about the time of day, the weather outside, how many times you've watched the disc...Brrr...Creepy...

What I didn't like about the extras was the Hyperion Studios tour navigation and the fact that Disney has failed to include all of the bonus features from the 2001 DVD release. In order to watch the features buried within the Hyperion tour (and they are multitudinous!) , the disc forces you to navigate your way through a maze of "rooms" within the studio. So, say for instance that I wanted to watch the "Steamboat Willy" short (Did I mention that all the Silly Symphonies are in HD! SILLY SYMPHONIES IN HD!!! "THE OLD MILL", "FLOWERS AND TREES", "GODDESS OF SPRING" AND MORE IN HD!!!! ... You should really just stop reading now and run out and buy this disc.) I'd have to find my way over to the "Sound Stage" before selecting it. This is a drag. By the same token, I found it annoying that there wasn't a "Play All" button that would have just taken me on the tour, allowing me to sit back and enjoy all the contents. I found myself having to press play on a new feature at least every few minutes. Hell, some of the little nuggets of information, like "Stories from the Camera Department" are less than 60 seconds long!

From what I can tell, this new Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Blu-ray is missing a few critical features from the 2001 DVD. Most critically a 40-minute documentary hosted by Angela Lansbury and more abandoned and deleted scenes. It's a shame we're all going to have to hold on to our old DVDs to have everything. I mean, the feature is the thing here and it is glorious. But this would have been a perfect disc for me, if Disney had made it a bit more comprehensive. Seriously, ditch the Tiffany Thorton music video (Who the hell is Tiffany Thorton anyway?) and give me more deleted scenes!

One final gripe - the packaging. I live for this stuff. I love Blu-ray and home video. And despite my familiarity with these sorts of things I found the dual package marketing strategy baffling. It took me ages to figure out that Disney was offering the same contents in two completely different packages, targeted at two different audiences. One release is in standard Blu-ray packaging, implying that the DVD included in the package is a bonus. The other release is in standard DVD packaging and strongly implies that the Blu-ray content is the bonus. ARGHH!! What a frustrating thing to do to your customers, Disney! I mean, I get it. I understand what the goal is but there's got to be a better way. Just saying.

NOTE: The Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Blu-ray disc is only $9.99 at Amazon.com at the moment (Oct. 6, 2009.) Use the code "snowhite" to get $10 off their already amazingly low price!

Via: The Blu-ray Blog

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July 12, 2009

My favourite movie on the planet, I mean the absolute best film ever made, in my eyes is Tonari No Totoro (My Neighbour Totoro) by Hayao Miyazaki. Damn near cinematic perfection in animation. And Miyazaki's best work, by far. Even compared to his wonderful, most recent film, Ponyo, which has just been released on DVD in Japan.

How can you get Ponyo or Totoro on Blu-ray? Well, you can't. Not yet anyway.

Read more after the jump:

Studio Ghibli is Miyazaki and his partner Isao Takahata. They've each produced a ton of films since the studio's debut in the mid 80s, with most having been released on DVD here in North America and in Europe since Ghibli's distribution deal with Disney/Buena Vista some years back. To date, however none of these films have been released on Blu-ray. But don't fret. There's hope!

ponyo dvd bluray

Gake no ue no Ponyo, though released on DVD last week in Japan (region coded to work in Japanese players only, of course) has been announced for a December release on Blu-ray! No details of the disc itself are available yet but this bodes well for those of us outside of the land of the rising sun. You see, with the film opening in theatres here on August 14, and North America sharing a region code with Japan, I think this is Disney's sneaky little way of letting us know that we'll be seeing Ponyo on Blu-ray in North America at the same time. No point releasing it in one place alone when the disc is programmed to work in the other. So, my best guess is that Ponyo will hit the USA and Canada on Blu-ray in December, to be followed slowly in the coming months by the rest of the Ghibli catalogue. Mark my words!

One thing we sadly won't see on our shores is Ponyo wa Kousite Umareta (This Is How Ponyo Was Born), the recently delayed 2-disc, 12 hour long Making-of-Ponyo release (pushed back to December to clear music rights, according to Studio Ghibli executive producer Suzuki Toshio). Even when it does hit the shops, this Blu-ray won't feature an English dub or any subtitles whatsoever. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that we might see a fan-sub pop up on the internets.

In the meantime, to sate your Ghibli pallet, there are a handful of related releases on Blu (Hint - Snap up the Hisaishi in Budokan disc to see a bonus feature of music videos with Miyazaki's animation set to music. The first Ghibli animation available for home video consumption in HD!):

Joe Hisaishi in Budokan - Miyazaki Anime to Tomo ni Ayunda 25 Nenkan Blu-ray

Joe Hisaishi in Budokan - Miyazaki Anime to Tomo ni Ayunda 25 Nenkan: "To commemorate the release of Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, master composer and Miyazaki's longtime collaborator Hisaishi Joe held special concerts at the Budokan on August 4 and 5, 2008. Joe Hisaishi in Budokan - Miyazaki Anime to Tomo ni Ayunda 25 Nenkan fondly revisits the award-winning composer's 25 years of musical collaboration with Miyazaki. Featuring a 200-person orchestra, an 800-person choir, and guest appearances from vocalists Hirahara Ayaka, Masako Hayashi, Fujioka Fujimaki, and Ohashi Nozumi, this concert DVD captures a night filled with music from Ponyo, My Neighbor Totoro, Laputa, Princess Mononoke, and other beloved Ghibli classics. Comes with making of and screen animation footage."

Oga Kazuo Exhibition: Ghibli No Eshokunin - The One Who Painted Totoro's Forest Blu-ray + DVD

Oga Kazuo Exhibition: Ghibli No Eshokunin - The One Who Painted Totoro's Forest (English Subs): "From July 21 through September 10th, 2007, the Museum for Contemporary Art Tokyo held an exhibition honoring Oga Kazuo, the art director and background artist for many famed works from Japan's Studio Ghibli. Over 600 works from the artist were on display, and numerous fans flocked to the one-of-a-kind exhibition celebrating the lush, gorgeous background artwork typifying many a work from Miyazaki Hayao and other Ghibli filmmakers. International fans of Oga and Studio Ghibli have not been left out, however. The Oga Kazuo Exhibition: Ghibli No Eshokunin - The One Who Painted Totoro's Forest (Blu-ray + DVD) allows fans the opportunity to attend the exhibition, as well as watch interviews and testimonials with Oga's contemporaries and collaborators, all subtitled in English."

The Scenery In Ghibli : Japan in Miyazaki's Work / European Journey To Meet Miyazaki's Work  Blu-ray

The Scenery In Ghibli : Japan in Miyazaki's Work / European Journey To Meet Miyazaki's Work : "With the use of Miyazaki's ekonte (storyboards) 3 travellers, actress Tsuruta Mayu, Natsukawa Yui and actor Sugimoto Tetsuta, visit the places and towns related to the images from Miyazaki's animated works. BS-Nippon re-edited the European part that aired on their TV channel back in 2006, as well as the Japanese part which aired in 2008 on BS-Nittere. In The Japan Miyazaki depicted (95 minutes), Tsuruta Mayu visits the places of "good old Japan" and discovers profound attractions like Totoro and Spirited Away and also shows the charm of Ponyo. In A Trip of the Europe Encountered in Miyazaki's Works (85 minutes) Natsukawa Yui visits Stockholm and Gotland to seek Koriko town from Kiki's Delivery Service. Sugimoto Tetsuta visits Alsace region to seek the town where Sophie lives in in Howl's Moving Castle." (via GhibliWorld.com)

Hayao Miyazaki will be making a rare appearance and speaking at the San Diego Comic-Con on July 24, in Hollywood for the US premiere of Ponyo on the 27 and in Beverly Hills, Calif., to be honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences the following evening, July 28.

Read more about Blu-ray at The Blu-ray Blog.com

Read about the new Studio Ghibli DVDs: Studio Ghibli Collection

And play those discs on the PS3, the best Blu-ray player on the market today!

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April 14, 2009
Via BoingBoing, we have this great video of self-referential Disney animation:

The BB thread offers some theories on why these designs might have repeated over time, ranging from the technical to the cultural. Any ideas?


March 6, 2009

I'm getting really excited to see Up! I finally watched Wall-E a few days ago and was struck yet again by how brilliant Pixar can be. They so rarely disappoint, knowing exactly how to paint a scene to render it most affecting. I'm expecting the dog with the talking collar in the new Up trailer above to affect my laugh-hard-wet-pants centre quite a bit when the film hits theatres on May 29th.

Click on over to Yahoo Movies for links to the HD versions of the trailer.

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March 2, 2009
We've written before about copyright, as well as its ethical and cultural implications.

For those you don't know exactly what it's all about and who don't want to read a law book, Eric Faden created A Fair(y) Use Tale, a short film (with a little legally acquired help from Disney) explaining what copyright, fair use and the public domain are.

Large media corporations are often quick on the trigger when it comes to proactively defending their property. The recent kerfuffle between Fox and Warner Brothers over the Watchmen movie, is but one example of copyright going wrong and helping no one, except for some lawyers and a large corporation. It certainly did not benefit the creators, or the audience. The distinct possibility of no one being able to watch Watchmen existed. This is why many creators fight the modern idea of copyright. As Cory Doctorow said, if copyright kills culture, then copyright has no reason for being. While corporations don't seem to see this, many creators do and are trying to do something about it.

Musicians are often the artists we hear the most about when the media covers copyright issues, but animators are also involved since many of them use music for their films. One of the animators doing her part in trying to make copyright more useful for everyone is Nina Paley; by distributing Sita Sings the Blues, under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License. You can find out more about why she's doing it on her website and in this interview.

The interview is quite long, if you wish you can also view highlights of it here.

If you want more animated goodness, the Internet Archive also has over 1400 animated films freely available for download, from Lego Brick Films to vintage cartoons from the 30s and 40s.

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November 21, 2008
For the first time in a long time, I saw a Disney film and missed the publicity hype preceding it. Except for some of the recent commentary scanned on Cartoon Brew (a testament to my level of Busy; this blog is a pleasure in life that you need to take your time to read), I managed not to see any web banners, marquee posters, or newspaper, radio or television ads.

At a much earlier time, I read of the changes to the stewardship of the Bolt in the wake of restructuring changes at the Walt Disney Animation Studios. I knew from the Brewmasters' reports that the film had changed markedly from its original vision, but I hadn't really thought about it lately.

But time had passed, and Bolt was not really on my mind as the studio was gearing up for the film. I managed to side-step the Disney hype machine this one time. So I'm writing this based entirely on my impressions of what I saw in the cinema on Wednesday.

Bolt is a winner.

There are tons of laughs in the film, but you don't feel like you're having your buttons pushed, and the dialogue is really snappy, but not in the way I find a lot of mainstream animation features tend to do it - lots of pop culture references, "aren't we clever" one-offs that get dated quickly. The lines are truly clever and fit the characters' perfectly.

Also, it's no secret that I'm not a fan of stunt-casting. The celebrity voice talent do their job well and don't get in my way of enjoying the film. They make their characters more believable and serve characters, not the other way around.

I did see the trailer for this film just this morning, and I must say I'm glad I went into without any preconceptions. As a result, the opening scene was more thrilling and taut than I think it would have been if I knew what was coming.

This is a fairly conventional Disney family feature, but I don't mean that in a bad way. Yes, it's safe. But it doesn't draw away from the fact that the film is engaging, the timing and pacing are dead-on, and the character animation is above-average. I can't help but wonder how much further the character animation could have been pushed if it were hand-drawn. Like Dreamworks' Kung Fu Panda, there is a point where the animation style changes and I wonder, why does all digital animation that touts the CG label feel it has to be hyper-realistic? However, I don't really spend much time on it because I thought that the animation I was watching was well-done.

Speaking of techniques,
I did watch this film in 3D (as well as trailers for Blue Sky's next Ice Age instalment, and Pixar's Up), and as much as I get annoyed by reading reviews that solely focus on a new technique or "gimmick" I liked the use of 3D in the film (as well as the trailers) because they all finally got something right. Unlike Beowulf, I never felt like the whole point of making Bolt was so we could watch it in 3D. Instead of setting up shots so that the viewer would get the feeling of things being moved toward them, the enhancement was used to convey a feeling of depth. There was very little effort made to break the fourth wall. Instead, the screen was the boundary for the actors on a stage.

The next Disney feature regardless of technique better be good, because a lot of viewers will be disappointed if it doesn't entertain as much as Bolt.

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September 22, 2008

ADAPT 2008 started today in Montreal. The conference for digital artists has proved a success right from the start and drawn talent from the media and gaming industry. This year's keynote speaker is Andrea Deja.

Here's an interview with Andrea Deja by Emru from last year's visit to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts for the Once Upon A Time Walt Disney exhibit. So you can guess when he discusses the film he can't name it's The Princess and the Frog.

ADAPT continues until Friday, with special presentations from Walt Disney Studios, Animation Mentor, Syd Mead and more.

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August 14, 2008
Film festival venues can be overwhelming and conference venues can be overwhelming, but when you combine them... well, the experience hovers somewhat above the horizon. That said, here are some tidbits:

1. Much discussion, several panels, and two full days of screenings of stereoscopic (3D) films, commercials, sports events, games and scientific visualizations on the first day of the conference. 3D is the agenda for 21st-century digital releases. I took in the two-hour screening of 3D clips and then heard fine artist and installation/performance artist Catherine Owens speak about collaborating with Bono on the 3D film of U2's concert in Buenos Aires. She spoke convincingly about "experimental" exploration and commitment to "idea" in relationship to her personal art, as well as in relationship to her directorial debut of the film U2 3D.

2. The Computer Animation Festival is programmed into seven two-hour screenings that most often repeat the commercials, trailers, and synopses of film titles submitted. For example, Rhythm and Hues showcased effects scenes of the polar bears in "The Golden Compass" and that is screened alongside the commercial from Bridgestone Tires many have seen of the squirrel running onto the highway to retrieve a nut as a car swerves to miss killing him. The festival is screening two impressive studio shorts worth mentioning here: Pixar Studios' Presto and Disney Studios' Glago's Guest. If you've seen WALL-E you've seen Presto before the feature screens.

3) A wonderful Tribute To Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas happened today with Tom Sito moderating a panel that included Frank Thomas' son, Theodore Thomas, documentary filmmaker, as well as a group of celebrity animators who had worked with the two of them in a mentor relationship. All of them delightfully shared their experiences with Frank and Ollie and were very well received. More on this later.

A closing note in case you don't want to wait: you may go online to read about all the sessions at SIGGRAPH 08 and can listen to them on DVD. All panels and discussions have been recorded are available for purchase.

I have constantly forgotten the number one rule for attending film festivals and conferences: find a place to sit, eat well and if you do this, thinking might follow! That said, I will return to report more soon, in spite of the L.A. smog my allergies are swimming in...

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August 12, 2008

Christmas has come early over at Disneyanimation.com! The official website of the Walt Disney Animation Studios is previewing their new projects in a variety of ways: including some new artwork highlighting the visual development of the upcoming 2-D animated feature, The Princess and the Frog.

More images after the jump:

Click over to Disneyanimation.com and explore the site fully to view more development work from The Princess and the Frog as well as info and images from the films Bolt, Rapunzel, King of the Elves and a variety of upcoming shorts.

Read more: The Princess and the Frog Blu-ray Disc Review

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August 8, 2008

I'm not ashamed to admit some movies have made me cry, and one film that's guaranteed to get me at least a little misty no matter how often I've seen it is Grave of the Fireflies. Directed by Isao Takahata—who people tend to forget co-founded Studio Ghibli with Hayao Miyazaki—Grave of the Fireflies is an adaptation of Akiyuki Nosaka's memoir of surviving the Allied firebombings of Kobe during World War II.

It's no great secret that Seita and Setsuko, the analogues to the author and his younger sister, eventually die; it's established right at the beginning of the movie, and the rest of the film acts as a flashback to explain what brought them to that point. It's a powerful story of familial love during the worst of ordeals, bringing with it a reminder that war affects more than just the soldiers on the battlefield.

Central Park Media released two versions of Grave of the Fireflies on DVD in 2002 and 2004 (they had the rights before the 1996 deal between Disney and Tokuma Shoten), but it's languished in out-of-print limbo for years. Just this Wednesday a new two-disc version of Grave of the Fireflies appeared in Japanese stores; at first blush, the only real difference is an essay by Nosaka, and (maybe) some more pre-production artwork.

Is this a precursor to a new Disney release in North America? I'd like to think so, but I'm not holding my breath. Disney's never seemed too sure what do with Takahata's movies; while they released the perhaps more accessible Pom Poko and My Neighbors the Yamadas three years ago, it was with minimal fanfare. The sombre Grave of the Fireflies might be trickier from their perspective, as would be Takahata's only remaining Ghibli film, the wistful Only Yesterday. A lot of lip service is given to the notion of animation that adults can watch, but there might be the fear that North America isn't ready for an animated film as powerful as Grave. Given that the U.S. and Canada are currently fighting wars on foreign soil, I'd say there isn't a better moment than right now.

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July 31, 2008

According to Jim Hill, Tron director Steve Lisberger is out of the picture, barred from bringing his vision for a sequel to his 1981 live-action/CG animated hit to the big screen. Who's taking his place? A director named Joseph Kosinski, who has yet to direct a feature film. Don't let this disturb you too much, though. From the look of his work (evidenced above), we're going to be in for a real treat.

Correct me if I'm wrong here but doesn't his work remind of a young, CGI-loving Ridley Scott? That can't be a bad thing, where a Tron sequel is concerned.

Watch more of his award-winning commercials at these links:

Via Ain't It Cool

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July 30, 2008

Disney isn't giving us a whole lot of insight into their upcoming film, The Princess and the Frog (directed by John Musker and Ron Clements, directors of The Little Mermaid and Aladdin) with this new trailer. But I don't care. This looks beautiful. Thank the lord for Ed Catmull, John Lasseter and the return of Disney's 2D animation division. 2009 can't come soon enough!

Watch the trailer in other formats: The Princess and the Frog

Read more: The Princess and the Frog Blu-ray Disc Review

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I've been remiss in posting about a comic book project called Who Is Rocket Johnson? The anthology brings together numerous Disney artists and directors to help raise money for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Besides looking great, it's for a great cause.

One copy sold on eBay for over 500 dollars, and the rest of the limited print run of 1000 copies were made available at the San Diego Comic Con for $20. If you still want to get your hands on a copy, get in contact with Stuart Ng in California or The Labyrinth in Toronto while quantities last!

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Amid Amidi of Cartoon Brew and Harry McCracken of Harry-Go-Round have both commented on the San Diego Comic Con preview of footage from Up and Bolt. Take a look at this teaser for Up.

Original Video- More videos at TinyPic

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July 17, 2008

Animation World has a fantastic little interview with Aeon Flux animator, Peter Chung. In it, he speaks about his background working under Ralph Bakshi, storyboarding Transformers and finally arriving at his process for creating Aeon Flux. But what is he doing at the moment?

"One of the things that I'm working on now is an adaptation of Cyborg 009, which is a Japanese comic book character and an animation series from the '60s, which I grew up with...I've written a story and redesigned the characters."

Take a gander at what it might look like if the Cyborgs cram a Rally's 99¢ cheese-double-cheese, Chung-Style, right after the jump:

Via Animation World

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April 15, 2008

Ollie Johnston (pictured above at right, with longtime colleague, co-author and pal Frank Thomas), the last of Disney's fabled Nine Old Men, passed away yesterday, marking a symbolic end of an era.

I owe Frank and Ollie a lot. About 25 years ago, a few years after my first attempts at animating, I decided that just studying movement frame by frame wasn't going to cut it, and started reading about the process. The duo's Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life wasn't the first book on creating animation I borrowed from the library, but it had an impact that was, quite simply, life-changing.

Prior to reading the book I knew little about the actual history of animation in general, and next to nothing about the history of the Disney studio. I liked Disney movies—Kino Kid and I made a point of catching every new and re-released Disney film—but unlike the constantly rerun Warner Bros. productions, I couldn't tell you who directed what, or offer any analyses of the movies. The gorgeously produced Illusion of Life was a gift from the gods, offering the ultimate insiders' view of the studio's best decades, artistically and technologically, liberally sprinkled with concept, pre-production and final artwork. The final pages contained actual animation instruction, but in truth the whole book was a masterclass for anyone who cared to open their eyes.

I devoured The Illusion of Life. Twice. The first time was during an extended road trip that took us to Toronto and Saint Catharines in Ontario, then Ann Arbor, Michigan. The second time was just a few years later, after I'd started seriously immersing myself in animation publications and bought my own copy. Both times, I couldn't put it down.

I have to admit to more than a twinge of disappointment when I later learned about the 1941 Disney strike, and discovered that the divisions caused by the strike ran so deep that The Illusion of Life effectively elided the contributions of those who participated in it. But in the end, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston were my first animation history teachers, and one of my earliest and most thorough animation teachers. Without them, and that book, my life would be very different—there would certainly be no Frames Per Second—and for that I offer my thanks to Ollie and belated thanks to Frank.

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March 6, 2008
Information revealed by a spokeswoman for Disney Japan on Thursday indicates a sea change is underway to Disney's approach to developing content for the Japanese market. Previously satisfied to rely on strong recognition of its classic animated characters, recent global hits and largely passive partnerships with local studios, Disney has reached out to several Japanese studios to both adapt current characters and jointly develop new content.

The anime aesthetic has been an elusive target for animation studios outside of Asia who seek to capture the older audiences and massively successful all-ages merchandizing abilities of Japanese content producers. The appearance of an enormous Western partner comes at an opportune time for the local anime industry, which has struggled to continue its breakneck pace of growth amid talent shortages, competition from other Asian countries and fears that the market for anime in Japan and abroad has topped out.

Disney has wasted no time lining up quality Japanese partners. Disney will work with Madhouse Studios to crate a new Lilo & Stitch series to air in Japan, which will be set on an island off Okinawa and will star a Japanese girl named Hanako as Stitch's sidekick. Fireball, a short feature produced with Jinni Animation is scheduled to air on Tokyo Metropolitan TV in April. A second short feature for television, Robodz, is in production with Toei Animation and will air in June. Although a partnership between Toei and Disney had been previously announced, Toei shares surged more than 3 percent in reaction to today's news.

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January 10, 2008
Hake's Americana and Collectibles's latest auction features some interesting animation and comic-related articles. The current auction features almost 400 rare Disney art collectibles, including some rare Disney artwork, such as a Gustaf Tenggren sketch from The Old Mill and the first Donald Duck model sheet from the short, The Wise Little Hen. There are also Disney picture books and posters: check out the WWI poster of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Art in the lot ranges from Silly Symphonies to more recent features like The Lion King.

While acquiring the Disney artwork and memorabilia is enticing, I thought the Winsor McCay posters and miniatures, Fleischer posters, Jay Ward and Dr. Seuss items equally fascinating. If you didn't blow your budget during the holidays, you can go crazy now.

You have until the end of the month to keep your wallet under lock and key.

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September 21, 2007
Last year, the Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art (also just known as Museum of Tokyo or MOT) held a notable exhibition, The Art of Disney. A beautiful catalogue was also published for the exhibit featuring works that were once thought lost. This summer, the DVD catalogue of the exhibit was released in Japan as well.

I decided I was going to see whatever exhibit was showing at the museum when I was in Tokyo, as I like to do in any new city I visit. It ended up the major exhibit was also animation-related this year: a retrospective of work by Art Director Kazuo Oga.

Kazuo Oga worked on a diverse animation projects such as Barefoot Gen, Dagger of Kamui and Wicked City before creating the background art for My Neighbor Totoro at Studio Ghibli. He went on to work on all of the subsequent features for the studio, and last year, directed his own film for the studio, Taneyamagahara no Yoru.

The lush scenery he creates with his brush is truly breathtaking, and the museum selection was as dense as an of the green forest background he is known for. The sheer number of pieces was more than I have seen for comparatively-sized art exhibitions of any type, and I have never seen its like for animation artwork, mostly from the Studio Ghibli archives. He captures the spirit of the countryside, but also of everyday Japan with a balance of love and accuracy.

Almost all of the art is unphotographable. Near the end of the exhibit, after a room of multiplane setups, there are a number of backgrounds that are blown up so that people can pose in front of them, but most people just step back in wonder to take a whole new look at the art. (I couldn't help posing with Totoro, though.)

Afterward, everyone was invited to fold an origami Totoro in an open room, with mini-backgrounds. Here's mine.

Like the Art of Disney catalogue, a catalogue has been published for this exhibit as well. A DVD is forthcoming for the end of the year. The exhibit has been extended until September 30. If you find yourself in Tokyo, you won't want to miss it.

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July 9, 2007
Just received a message from ASIFA-SF's Karl Cohen:
I just got an e-mail about the passing of Dave Hilberman from one of his sons. I've written him back asking if there will be an obit written by them or if they want help in this matter. Meanwhile if any of you wish to share memories of Dave with ASIFA-SF members, I'm happy to gather your comments and publish them in some form and/or to pass them on to his two sons that I'm in e-mail contact with. [Note: Karl's address is karlcohen at earthlink dot net.]

For those of you who are not familiar with Dave, he was a Disney animator in the late 30s. He was active with the strike and was hated by Walt after it ended. Walt considered him a ringleader and denounced him in public at a House investigation of unAmerican activities in 1947.

Thanks to loosing his job at Disney, Dave along with 2 other friends formed a company that made job training filmstrips during the war and several animated films including Hell Bent for Election to support Roosevelt in 1944 and Brotherhood of Man in 1946. By the time Brotherhood was complete Dave and Zack Schwartz had sold their interest in the company to the 3rd partner, Steve Bousustow. Steve went on to turn the company, now known as UPA, into a major animation studio after he obtained a distribution contract from Columbia in the late 1940s.

Meanwhile Dave and Zack were off to NYC where they became pioneers in TV advertising. Zack soon left Dave. Dave with Bill Pomerance as his partner formed Tempo and became a major player in producing animated TV commercials until right wing anti-communists denounced the two owners of the company. Tempo closed and Dave moved to England (and briefly Italy) for about a year.

I don't know much about his career after he returned to the US, but he did get work doing layouts and storyboards from Hanna-Barbera which he wasn't proud of (I recall his saying he hated doing rank TV shows, but I need to check my notes and letters from him for an exact quote) and he became SF State's first animation teacher in the late 1960s. He lived in Palo Alto in recent years and was interviewed a few times for books and documentaries that covered the Disney strike and blacklist. John Canemaker was one of the first scholars to write about him and he is a pivitol person in my writings about the early TV animation industry and in my chapeter of Forbidden Animation about the Disney Strike and the blacklisting of animators. Tom Sito interviewed him for Drawing the Line and Marc Elliot misquoted him in Disney, Hollywood's Dark Prince (I was told he was quite disturbed by Elliot and a British TV documentary twisting his statements around and putting an incorrect spin on his statements) In the 1980s he presented an ASIFA-SF event on his career at SF State. His wife Libby died recently (last.year or 2005). I believe he was in his early '90s when he died.
Note that the 1911 birthdate was the best I could figure on short notice; Hilberman may have been born in 1912.


June 29, 2007
Review by Terrence Briggs

Ratatouille is Pixar's best film since Toy Story.

It may lack the rapid-fire whimsy of Toy Story's dialogue, but it tells a more nuanced and imaginative story than Toy Story 2, with fewer softball cultural references. As in Iron Giant and The Incredibles, Brad Bird grounds the characters with largely believable dialogue, and goes through amazing pains to legitimize its many narrative conceits. It's drop-dead gorgeous, almost the equal of Finding Nemo, with more elaborately choreographed action.

Read the review

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June 12, 2007
Pixar has announced that their 2009 feature will be titled Up, making it the most concisely titled animated feature ever, at least until Shane Acker's 9 comes out. According to Variety, the movie will be about "a 70-year-old man who teams with a wilderness ranger to fight beasts and villains." That's just vague enough that I went straight to Up helmer Pete Docter and asked if he could provide even a little more detail at this early date. For instance, is the movie set in the past, present or future? "It's set in the present," he said, "But I'm not supposed to say much more than has already been printed—other than it's going to be really cool!" Hopefully he'll be more forthcoming before the movie's June 12, 2009 debut.

The Mouse goes to Bollywood: In an effort to crack the Indian market, Disney is teaming up with Yash Raj Films to co-produce Bollywood-style animated features, voiced by Bollywood stars. It's a step up from, say, pitching Mulan to Chinese audiences, but it'd be really cool if Disney set up an exchange program between the Indian studio and Feature Animation in the States. It's a small world, after all.

You know we're gleefully anticipating Astro Boy Essays: Osamu Tezuka, Mighty Atom, and the Manga/Anime Revolution, but gnash our teeth mightily while waiting for its September release date. Happily, we can get a taste when author Frederik L. Schodt chats with KQED's Michael Krasny next Tuesday, between 9:00 and 11:00 a.m. Pacific Time. (If you miss it, you can download the archived podcast a bit later.) Oh, did I mention it's a call-in show? You can phone in with questions during the show at 415-863-2476 or 1-866-SF-FORUM (866-733-6786; toll free).

I had no idea there was such a thing as the Canadian Skills Competition, let alone that the thirteenth instalment happened last last week. And imagine my surprise at discovering that the "Olympic-style competitions that test the skills of young people at secondary and post-secondary levels in trade and technology areas" include animation! Specifically, there are two team events titled 3D Character Computer Animation and 2D Character Computer Animation. Congratulations to the winners, but of course I'm a little irked that animation is being considered a technology skill more than an artistic one.

I'm not a huge fan of '80s TV, and frankly the thought of another He-Man and the Masters of the Universe movie bewilders me. (The Transformers movie, less so. The smart money has long known to bet on robot smackdowns.) But it's now been confirmed that Warner will be making the Thundercats movie as a CGI feature. Okay, they've got a cool logo and all, but... why? I know, I know, there's a fan base. But... why?

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June 6, 2007
We've been quiet about this year's upcoming charity auction, but it doesn't mean we haven't been working on it behind the scenes. Yesterday I tallied the votes that had come in, and you've once again chosen to donate the proceeds from this November's auction to cancer research. Now we're asking for just one more bit of vox populi from you. Head over to the auction page and vote to decide which organization will be the one we'll be writing the cheque out to when the dust settles.

While you're there, you might also want to see our list of auction items, which I've finally gotten around to updating somewhat. Two items of note are a Meet the Robinsons baseball cap, made specifically for the feature animation crew that worked on the film (it says so right on the back), and a gorgeous Art of Disney catalogue from the Tokyo exhibit of the same name. I was going to gingerly scan segments of the book, but Chris Turner did such a great job back in November I decided to just link to his page instead. If you read Japanese (or just like to look at cool images), you can also see more about the exhibit itself on the official page.

While there are some auction items I haven't gotten around to listing yet, there's always room for more. If you'd like to donate something, by all means let us know.

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June 1, 2007
The Bonhams and Butterfields auction house is selling artwork from the estate of Carl Barks on Monday, June 4th. Public viewings will be held in Los Angeles from June 1 to June 3.

Lot items include art by Carl Barks, including his comic and animation artwork, pin up art and landscape paintings. Also featured is animation art from a number of different productions, including a Charlie Brown special, Shrek and classic Disney films. There is art by various artists for Carl Barks, as well as awards he received for his outstanding work.

If you're too far away, the items (nearly 200) up for auction are available for viewing and bidding online here (skip to Lot 1250).

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May 11, 2007
Looks like a whole lotta nostalgia going on. Compilations for Sonic the Hedgehog, Darkwing Duck, The Tick and more join the listings this week, as well as the complete run of Hal Seeger's Batfink series, which should make longtime fan Dave Mackey happy. (Dave wrote about Batfink back in 1992, for our second print issue. Check out his page on the Batman-spoofing rodent here.)

New titles:

5/14 - Secrets of Oscar-winning Animation: Behind the Scenes of 13 Classic Short Animations (paperback) (Book)

6/12 - Naruto OVA + Naruto Vol. 1 manga (DVD)
6/26 - Rataoing (DVD)
6/26 - Van-Pires Transform Vol. 1: Mission Demolition (DVD)
6/26 - Van-Pires Transform Vol. 2: Deep Freeze (DVD)

7/3 - Batfink: The Complete Series (CD)
7/10 - Miss Spider's Sunny Patch Kids (DVD)
7/10 - Stellaluna (DVD)
7/17 - Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog (DVD)
7/24 - Pink Panther Classic Cartoon Collection, Vol. 6: Inspector Cartoons (DVD)

8/7 - Charlie & Lola Vol. 5: But I Am an Alligator (DVD)
8/7 - Darkwing Duck Vol. 2 (DVD)
8/7 - Tick vs. Season Two (DVD)
8/14 - Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters for DVD (DVD)
8/14 - Baby Looney Tunes Vol. 4 (DVD)
8/14 - Baby Looney Tunes Vols. 1-4 (DVD)
8/14 - Loonatics Unleashed Complete Season 2 (DVD)
8/14 - Loonatics Unleashed Complete Seasons 1 & 2 (DVD)
8/14 - Pup Named Scooby-Doo, A: Vol. 7 (DVD)
8/28 - The Legion of Super-Heroes Vol. 1 (DVD)

9/1 - Opportunities in Cartooning and Animation Careers (paperback) (Book)

10/24 - Yoshitaka Amano: The Collected Art of Vampire Hunter D (Book)

Date changes:

January 2008:
1/1 - Understanding Animation (paperback) (Book)

Indefinitely delayed:
Winx Club Season 2 Vol. 2: Battle for the Codex (DVD)

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March 30, 2007
Meet the Robinsons is an inventive, engaging and fun film. It's enjoyable from start to finish and with luck could herald a new age in American animation. (That's not to say it's perfect or an instant classic, but it's got enough going right that the film gives us something different and special. In this day of copycat cookie-cutter films, that can't be overlooked.) This just-released Disney movie is a rare breed of Hollywood-produced animated films. It's not ironic, not moralistic, not a fairy tale on a grand scale; instead it's a pure story, well thought out and executed. It's the kind of movie that I left the theater liking and on the drive home found myself thinking back on and enjoying even more.

Read the review by Noell Wolfgram Evans

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March 19, 2007
On Thursday, March 22nd, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts will continue its free screenings of classic Disney features with Cinderella. One of my favourite touches in this film was the pumpkin carriage, which was inspired by the work of Beatrix Potter (one of the things I learned by attending the superlative exhibit, Once Upon a Time Walt Disney, to which these screenings are linked). If you can't make it for the film, Fantasia is showing on Friday, and I can't wait for Pinocchio on the weekend. See you there!

Don't feel for a feature film on Thursday? How about shorts?

Steamboat Willie, 1928, 8 min
Mickey's Orphans, 1931, 7 min
Mickey's Pal Pluto, 1933, 8 min
Mickey's Fire Brigade, 1935, 8 min
The Band Concert, 1936, 9 min
Donald and Pluto, 1936, 8 min
Thru the Mirror, 1936, 9 min
Clock Cleaners, 1937, 9 min
Don Donald, 1937, 8 min
Modern Inventions, 1937, 9 min

La Cinémathèque Québécoise will be screening these Mickey Mouse shorts (with appearances from the rest of the gang). These are all 35 mm prints.

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March 14, 2007
Just corrected a minor oversight: For people who'd rather not download our last two video podcasts but are still interested in the interviews, I've added two audio-only versions for your enjoyment, with the earlier one back-dated to when it was supposed to go up. You'll find the Bruno Girveau interview here and the Lella Smith interview here.

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Much of the artwork seen at the Once Upon a Time Walt Disney exhibit comes courtesy of the Disney Animation Research Library, which is under the direction of Lella Smith, who was present for the exhibit's opening at the Montreal Museum of Fine Art.

Photo credit: Emru Townsend

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Much of the artwork seen at the Once Upon a Time Walt Disney exhibit comes courtesy of the Disney Animation Research Library, which is under the direction of Lella Smith. In this video podcast you can listen to my interview with her while watching a slideshow of some of the Library's artwork that's on display at the exhibit.

Watch the video

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Much of the artwork seen at the Once Upon a Time Walt Disney exhibit comes courtesy of the Disney Animation Research Library, which is under the direction of Lella Smith. In this video podcast you can listen to my interview with her while watching a slideshow of some of the Library's artwork that's on display at the exhibit.

Photo credit: Emru Townsend

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March 12, 2007
Veteran Disney animator Andreas Deja was an unexpected guest at the press conference for the Once Upon a Time Walt Disney exhibit at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. I sat down with him and talked about how he was inspired to become an animator, and how he feels about anime, CGI, and people referencing his animation the way he used to reference his predecessors.

Listen to the interview

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Veteran Disney animator Andreas Deja was an unexpected guest at the press conference for the Once Upon a Time Walt Disney exhibit at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. I sat down with him and talked about how he was inspired to become an animator, and how he feels about anime, CGI, and people referencing his animation the way he used to reference his predecessors.

Andreas Deja (Wikipedia)

Photo credit: Emru Townsend

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First presented at the Grand Palais in Paris in fall 2006, the exhibition Once Upon a Time Walt Disney: The Sources of Inspiration for the Disney Studios makes its way to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, where it will undoubtedly create quite a buzz. It is indeed a rare occasion when animation films—let alone Disney—get the limelight in a museum.

The exhibition's companion catalogue is a luxuriously illustrated book whose scholarly analyses invite us to re-examine the Disney aesthetic through its relations with European fine arts.

Read the review

Review by Marco de Blois

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March 10, 2007
Two days before the Once Upon a Time Walt Disney exhibit officially opened in Montreal, members of the press and other guests were invited to roam the museum during the morning press conference and the evening reception. Although the sheer amount of material is staggering, we hope this selection of photos will give you a taste of what's on display.

See the photos

Photos by Emru Townsend and Roy Patrick Disney

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There is lots of programming today at the Festival of Films on Art (FIFA). There's something for everybody.

If you missed the documentary Il Etait Un Fois... Walt Disney when it aired late last year with English subtitles, it will be showing again today and Sunday in French at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, where the exhibit of the same name has just started its North American run. The program begins at 2:00 p.m. (4:30 on Sunday) and is preceded by a documentary (with some animated sequences) on Kinder Surprise, a guilty pleasure of mine. (Note that today and tomorrow are also your last two chances to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at the museum).

If you're all Disneyed out, at 4:30 p.m. there is a screening of Parnography, a documentary about Estonian animator Pritt Parn and his contemparies. It repeats later in the week.

The documentary airs with Drawing Lessons and Histoires Mysterieuses d'Aujourd'hui, a collection of six Japanese tales of horror and does not have the typical hallmarks of mainstream Japanese animation. Both sound utterly fascinating.

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