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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February 5, 2009
Coraline, the first stop-motion feature film to be presented in 3D, is being released in North American theaters on 6 February 2009. Neil Gaiman, author of the multiple award-winning novel upon which the film is based, stopped briefly in Montreal on his promotional tour for the film. I had the pleasure of sitting down and talking with him about the choice of animation versus live action for interpreting Coraline and The Graveyard Book, as well as some of his ideas about animated adaptations of his other works.

Arin Murphy: You’ve explained that Coraline was very firmly a stop-motion idea in your head. Your Newbery-award winning novel The Graveyard Book has been optioned by Neil Jordan, who’s going to be doing a live-action adaptation of it. Did it ever cross your mind that that could be done in animation of some form?

Neil Gaiman: No. No, I wanted what I was seeing in my head. For The Graveyard Book I’ve always seen real people, and part of the fun will be how they’ll do the ghosts. But the idea of making anything less than very, very real people and sets in which you can walk around and tap on headstones – it just seems wrong. On the other hand, now, I would love to do something like The Wolves in the Walls as animation. Whether 2D or 3D or stop-motion — as long as it felt like Dave McKean, that would be amazing. Henry and I have started chatting in a lazy kind of way about Odd & The Frost Giants as an animated project. That may well work as a cool animated idea. So I think there are definitely things of mine out there that I do want animated… I just didn’t want The Graveyard Book. For me, in my head, it’s live-action.

I think it’s wonderful that as an author you can say, “I feel this about this book,” and people will actually say, “Great, let’s actually explore that direction.”

I think it’s so incredibly lucky. I think as well there’s part of me that worries that if you made Coraline as a live-action film and really made it well, you’d end up with The Shining for kids. You would wind up with something… I don’t know if you’ve been on the Coraline website, but they have this wonderful thing where you can put buttons over your eyes?

Yes, I can’t bring myself to do it.

It’s really disturbing. It’s so much more disturbing. The fact that these [stop-motion puppets] are little dolls and you kind of know that they don’t have [real] eyes behind the buttons… that somehow makes it kind of okay. [pause] Not very okay, but kind of okay. They have buttons. Doing that with real human beings might be really seriously disturbing.

Well, there’s that one moment in the film where they say, “If you want to stay with us, all you need to do is…” and they push the buttons across to her. In the book that gave me pause as well, because when you read it, you visualize it. If you saw a real live flesh and blood person with buttons sewn in their eyes—well, just think about your button trailer!


Everything’s fine until you actually put the buttons up, and then you smile—

And I have no idea how actually sinister that smile would have been without the buttons there. There was this weird thing where I knew that if I just put buttons up in the right way, and I did the [demonstrates] smile, it was going to be absolutely terrifying. Just for a moment.

Yup. It worked.

Shouldn’t have done, but it did.

Thank you so very, very much.

You are so very welcome. Thank you for coming.

Previously on fps:

Interview With Neil Gaiman, Part One
Coraline (review)

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February 4, 2009
Coraline, the first stop-motion feature film to be presented in 3D, is being released in North American theaters on February 6. Neil Gaiman, author of the multiple award-winning novel upon which the film is based, stopped briefly in Montreal on his promotional tour for the film. I had the pleasure of sitting down and talking with him about the development of the project through its various stages.

Arin Murphy: Neil, congratulations on the imminent release of Coraline.

Neil Gaiman: Thank you. Yes, three days to go!

I was lucky enough to see it at the press screening last week.

Did you get it in 3D, or 2D?

I saw it in 3D.

Oh, good!

It really is quite the experience, isn’t it?

Yes, it’s not quite like anything else. And you know, it’s a lovely thing when you can actually say, “It’s not like anything else.”

Well, some of that is due to the story.

That’s true. But story aside, the way Henry uses 3D to delineate space is something nobody’s done before. You get that one needle gag five seconds into the movie, almost just so he lets you know that he could do this, if he wanted to. [It’s like saying] we can do this, and now we’re not going to. Now we’re going to use 3D in a way that isn’t about throwing things at the audience. This is the film you’re going to see, and we will simply make it good.

And he does a fabulous job with it.

It is awesome.

Were you thinking cinematically when you wrote Coraline?

No. I was thinking story when I wrote Coraline. When I finished I thought, “You know, somebody’s going to make this into a film, and I would like to see it… and if I had to pick anything, I would like it to be stop-motion.”

I had seen and loved Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, and had liked it enough that I had taken note of who directed it. Which meant that a few years later when James and the Giant Peach came out, I went to see that. And while I had problems with it, I loved it; the genius was there. I just thought there were some missteps. Like the going from live action to stop-motion; that seemed wrong. I wanted it to have been stop-motion all the way through. I wound up asking Henry about [it] many years later, and he said it was the budget; they could not afford to do it entirely stop-motion, and they played the hand they were dealt. So when I handed in the manuscript for Coraline I asked my agent, “Could you get this to Henry Selick?” And about a month later I found myself in an editing suite watching poor Henry as he struggled with the madness of Monkeybone, and very shortly after that he gave [Coraline] to [producer] Bill Mechanic, who bought it for Henry.

And Henry wrote a script, and sent it to me. And I said, “I think it’s too faithful.” And it was. It felt very, very laboriously faithful. You know, it kept turning into a silent little girl walking down corridors.

Which works in a novel –

Well, which works in a novel because you’re inside her head. You know what she’s thinking, you know what she’s feeling. But without benefit of voiceover or turning to the fourth wall and talking, you don’t have that.

So then Henry went away, rather sadly, and came back about a year later with a second draft script, which was essentially the script of the film you saw. But at this point it had to be live action, because Bill Mechanic had some sort of deal with Disney which precluded him from doing animation of any kind. And I believe that Michelle Pfeiffer was meant to be the Other Mother… And I’m sort of watching and thinking, “Well, that’s okay, I suppose, but I really wanted stop-motion.” And then 9/11 happened, and it became slowly apparent that Bill Mechanic’s funding was never going to [come through]. Eventually, the rights lapsed. And I wound up doing something you’re never meant to do, which is giving them – I think they got about nine months to a year of free option. Because I believed in Henry.

That’s such a wonderful statement of faith.

Well, it was a particularly wonderful statement of faith because the book had since come out, been published, been a huge success, and now had lots of large shark-like entities swimming around going, “We will give you real money, we will get a lot of money….” But I like Henry. And I trusted him. And I trusted somehow that things were going to work out. And then Henry wound up at Laika, and he showed the script at some point to [Laika Vice President of Animation and stop-motion animator] Travis Knight, who was a fan of mine anyway. And Travis loved the script.

Bill Mechanic did not like stop-motion. He thought it was antiquated and that nobody was interested, and that [the film] should be done in CGI. And he was pushing Henry incredibly hard to have him make it half CGI and half stop-motion, something like that, so that it would go out of antiquated puppetry animation into cool modern animation. Thank God Henry came up with 3D and said, “What if we did this instead?” There were enough bells and whistles in the 3D concept that they abandoned the CG idea, which made me so happy. And it made me happy because, look, if I’d wanted a CG movie when I finished writing I would have given it to my agent and said, “Could you get it on John Lasseter’s desk.” He’s the best at [CGI]. I didn’t. What I said was, “Can you get it to Henry Selick,” who is non-pareil in what he does. The only stop-motion person I like as much as I like Henry, but who works in a completely different direction, is Jan Švankmajer. And I guess it may say something about why I wanted this to be stop-motion that when my daughter Holly (for whom I originally wrote Coraline) was five years old, her favourite movie was Jan Švankmajer’s Alice.

Jump to part two of the interview.

Previously on fps:
Coraline (review)

Previously on The Critical Eye:
Neil Gaiman on anime and Miyazaki

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July 1, 2008

Fleischer Studio expert Ray Pointer and Bernie Fleischer, nephew of Popeye animator Max Fleischer will be guests on the internet radio program, Stu's Show on July 2nd at 7PM est (4PM pst). The pair will be appearing to promote the recent release of WB's Popeye The Sailor - Volume 2: 1938-1940 dvd box-set by discussing...
"... Max's invention of the rotoscope, the Helen Kane/Betty Boop lawsuit, the animator's strike in 1937, the move of the studio from New York to Miami, and the eventual takeover by Paramout Pictures in the early 1940s."
Animation aficionados are encouraged to call into Shokusradio.com, ask questions and chat with these two Fleischer Studio experts!

Previously on fps:

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December 7, 2007

At last year's Ottawa International Animation Festival, I met with I.Toon founder and president Yuichi Ito; at this year's festival, we—along with his manager Hiroko Kamata—sat down to talk about his series of short stop-motion films, Norabbits' Minutes. Created for Shochiku's 110th anniversary, Norabbits' Minutes features two young rabbit brothers who live together in the forest and have endearing adventures together... though not without some absurd twists. As a bonus, we are also presenting the first episode of Norabbits' Minutes in its entirety.

Ottawa International Animation Festival
Buy the Norabbits' Minutes series on DVD (Region 2)

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At last year's Ottawa International Animation Festival, I met with I.Toon founder and president Yuichi Ito; at this year's festival, we—along with his manager Hiroko Kamata—sat down to talk about his series of short stop-motion films, Norabbits' Minutes.

Listen to the interview and see the short

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October 31, 2007
Three new podcasts this week, all focusing on the San Francisco Bay Area studio Little Fluffy Clouds. First, two shorts: their 2003 Au Petite Mort, which I favourably reviewed in my coverage of SIGGRAPH 2003; and Alignment, one of three ads they produced for IBM. Finally, there's my interview with Betsy de Fries and Jerry Van de Beek, who have been busily creating animated commercials since they founded the studio in 1996.

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My guests in this podcast are Betsy de Fries and Jerry van de Beek, who form the San Francisco Bay Area studio Little Fluffy Clouds. (And yes, they're named after the Orb song.) Little Fluffy Clouds has been in business since 1996, when the pair left the (Colossal) Pictures studio during its last days. The studio's been busily creating ads for a wide variety of clients since then.

Little Fluffy Clouds
Au Petite Mort
IBM: "Alignment"
Festival Watch: SIGGRAPH 2003
March 2006 issue of fps, featuring Little Fluffy Clouds' Today

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September 26, 2007
Interview by Emru Townsend and Tamu Townsend

Tekkonkinkreet has a long history, having started with a CG short created in the late 1990s, based on the Taiyo Matsumoto manga Black & White. Originally created as an exercise, Tekkonkinkreet was eventually slated to be a feature helmed by seasoned director Koji Morimoto—and then, silence. It wasn’t until late 2005 that it was announced that Tekkonkinkreet was on the boards again, this time with Michael Arias (who had created the original short) directing. The result was a heady, lush and sometimes baffling feature that saw very limited theatrical release in North America and is now out on DVD. Shortly after the film opened this year's Fantasia film festival, we interviewed Michael Arias via e-mail about the story behind Tekkonkinkreet.

Read the interview

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August 17, 2007

In April, the Tokyo-based company Digital Meme released the Japanese Anime Classic Collection, which contained almost 60 animated shorts from Japan's silent era. I recently spoke with Digital Meme CEO Larry Greenberg about this landmark collection, as well as his company.

Digital Meme
Matsuda Film Productions
Japanese Anime Classic Collection review
Oira no Yakyu [Our Baseball Match] (excerpt)

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July 2, 2007
Interview by Kenji Ishimaru

Studio 4°C has been leading the world of high quality animation in Japan. We interviewed Eiko Tanaka, CEO of Studio 4°C, about their highly anticipated but very secret latest product, called Genius Party.

Read the interview

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June 6, 2007
Ed Hooks is an actor and acting coach who has been helping animators understand the importance of acting theory to improve their craft. He is also the author of Acting for Animators, the first book that was written solely on the subject and has taught the principles of the book to animators the world over.

He will be in Montreal on June 11 at Centre NAD to teach his Acting for Animators workshop. Ed was kind enough to answer a few questions I had for him.

Tamu Townsend:
The first group you instructed were animators on the crew of Antz. How has your workshop changed since then? Besides all of the knowledge you have conferred to animators, what have they taught you and how has it affected your workshops and approach?

Ed Hooks: In 1998, Pacific Data Images had recently been acquired by DreamWorks and was in pre-production for its first feature, Antz. Ken Beilenberg, the Special Effects director, happened to be one of my students in my ongoing Palo Alto acting class for actors. One night after class, he asked me if I would be interested in teaching an acting class on-site for the animators at PDI [Pacific Data Images]. He explained that the animators at PDI were working on their first feature film, that they had previously only worked on commercials, and they needed acting training. I'm the kind of person who rarely says "no" to something, and so I agreed.

Mind you, I did not know squat about animation at that point. I knew I was a good acting teacher, but that was as far as it went. After that talk with Ken, I shortly thereafter wound up standing in front of a group of about 25 animators at PDI. I made the mistake of trying to teach them acting the same way I taught it in my acting-for-actors classes. I was arrogant enough to belive that there was only one way to teach actnng. I brought in scripts, had the animators get up and "cold read" them, assigned them scene partners and told them to go home and rehearse, to commit scenes to memory. By the third week, I had lost about half the class. That was when the Human Resources people at PDI took me to lunch.

"This isn't working, Ed," they explained.

"I can see that," I replied.

"But Ken says you are a good acting teacher and so, if you want to try something else, we'll keep paying you."

I went back to the animators and started all over again. "I know a lot about acting," I said, "But I obviously do not know much about animation. If you guys will tell me exactly what you do, I will do my best to bring what I know to bear on your work process." And so they sat me down at their computers and showed me what they did, which was an eye-opener to me.

I went back to the drawing board. How could I teach acting theory to people who did not, in fact, want to be actors? Very few animators even fantasized about appearing on Broadway or in a Robert DeNiro movie. Indeed, probably more than eighty percent of the animators were too shy to get up in front of people. This was a different situation than I faced in my regular acting classes for actors. I decided to teach the animators at PDI with a combination of lectures on basic acting theory, supported by clips from live-action movies.

That was how it all started. Necessity is indeed the mother of invention. What I do today in my Acting for Animators workshops had its beginnings back there at PDI in 1998. I have expanded and refined on it, of course, but the basics of the class began there. Since those early days at PDI, I have taught for most of the major animation studios and game companies. Each time, I try to improve on what I did the last time.

A year or so after I taught for PDI/DreamWorks, I started looking for books that addressed the difference between actors and animators. There were none, and that is what led to Acting for Animators. To this very day, I continue to refine what goes on in the class, but I now have a concrete understanding of what animators do and how it differs from what stage actors do. I continue to teach stage actors but, when I teach animators, I essentially change hats. Actors operate in the "present moment"; animators, by contrast, do not really have a present moment. Animators have twenty-four-frames-make-a-second. Animators have the illusion of a present moment. One must therefore teach acting theory to actors in a different way than one teaches it to animators. I learned the lessson, with the help of PDI/DreamWorks, the hard way.

TT: Do you feel that animators that use different techniques - 3D, 2D, stop-motion - will get the same use from the course? Are there certain components that may speak more or be more important to one person because of the technique he or she uses?

EH: Acting theory is acting theory, and it doesn't matter what animation technique you use: it is all about storytelling, and the process is ancient, going all the way back to Aristotle. I teach that the origins of acting lie in shamanism. An actor steps in front of the tribe, draws a circle in the dirt and says, in effect, "Listen to me. I have something to tell you." The tribe gathers round, hoping to learn something about survival on earth. The story is everything. It doesn't matter if you are using 2D, 3D, stop motion or... whatever. If you have something useful to say to the tribe, it will be well taken. If you do not, it will not.

TT: Mark Mayerson would like to know, when you are doing talks at studios, if you make recommendations for keeping characters consistent given that multiple animators will be working with the same character. That's obviously a problem that live actors don't have to deal with.

EH: I recommend that, at the beginning of a project, the animation director establish a "character bible" that contains everything there is to know about each individual character. Usually, the character bible is a three-ring notebook. It contains drawings of the characters, biographies, descriptions, et cetera. All of the animators working on a particular character should refer back to that bible. It should be kept in some place that is open to the entire production team.

TT: Do you have a specific teaching experience you would like to share?

EH: One of my students- Sharon Coleman- received an Academy Award nomination in 2006. Ms. Coleman was in my class in Swansea, South Wales and again at the National Film School in the UK. I had the opportunity to monitor her progress, from initial idea all the way to final 2D execution of Badgered. I was fortunate to be able to give her advice at several different stages of development. Sharon is a brilliant storyteller and animator, currently working for DreamWorks in Los Angeles, but at that time she was a student. I am proud of my input into her project.

My worst experience would probably be at a game company- not to be named. I was hired to teach an Acting for Animators class and, before the class started, the company owner took me into his office to explain what he wanted. He showed me a sports video, a football thing. He explained that he had himself performed as a mo-cap [motion capture] performer for some of the crashes and falls. He wanted me to teach his animators to do "good acting" such as he was doing in his mo-cap suit. Oh, Jesus! The man was very nice, but he didn't have a clue about acting! Taking falls on-camera had nothing whatever to do with acting theory. I can remember grinning at him and assuring him that I would teach them how to do it right. Then I went into workshop and taught my regular class.

TT:After Montreal, where will you go next in 2007?

EH: For certain, I will be working at Swansea Animation Days in Swansea, South Wales, and at Animex in Teesside, England and at FMX in Stuttgart, Germany. It is looking like I will be going to Australia for the third time in late September. The last time I taught in Oz was for Animal Logic, which was at the time working on Happy Feet.

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June 4, 2007
Madame Tutli-Putli is a remarkable work for many reasons, but the one that many (including me) have seized on is the one that continues the tradition of combining live-action and animation: the "gimmick" of compositing live actors' eyes onto the movies' stop-motion puppets. (The image to the left is Laurie Maher—Madame Tutli-Putli's co-creator, as it were—providing a reaction shot.) It is, perhaps, a form of motion capture that Robert Zemeckis and company never dreamed of.

That bit of trickery was achieved by Montreal-based painter/animator/compositor Jason Walker, who dropped me a line earlier today and pointed me to his website, which provides a glimpse into the process of capturing actors' ocular performances and then matching them up seamlessly. Still, after poking around I found I needed more, so I went straight to the source.

Emru Townsend: You're primarily a painter. What aspect of your painting skills do you bring to your compositing work?

Jason Walker: When I'm painting a portrait, one of the priorities, to me, is creating an exact likeness of the subject. Painting a human face requires a great deal of accuaracy. If any feature is even slightly off, you have a different person. The placement of eyes, especially, are key to making a person look human.

For Madame Tutli-Putli I placed, rotated, and scaled each eye individually, by the pixel, to make sure that Tutli's character was consistent through the four years of compositing. I used the same approach as painting a likeness. Tutli's eyes were also slightly stretched vertically to give her more of a sympathetic look.

ET: You're a little vague in your description of your process for matching human eyes to stop-motion actors. You used "every trick in the book and more," as you put it. Can you give us a detailed breakdown of one of those tricks?

JW: Vague, you say! Okay, you asked for it!

First of all, this technique of adding human eyes to stop-motion puppets is extremely complicated and starts long before the compositing stage. I will be adding more information on the technique to my website once Tutli has had time be in a festival or two before showing her "un-masked."

We decided that seeing Tutli with no eyes, and just the silicone puppet, is quite shocking and should be held back. The technique itself is a system I came up with back in 2003 when Tutli was still in talks with the NFB. I had worked on post-production effects for Clyde Henry Productions for several years before Tutli-Putli, and this was simply our latest collaboration and a chance to try a new challenge.

I would start by applying makeup to an actor. For Tutli's character this makeup would evolve throughout the film. With the "Pervert" character, and the small boy, I would add texture to the actor's skin to resemble the puppet they were to inhabit. I would then choreograph the actor's moves based on a chart that I would create. A "Wunderbar," as they became known. This was my way of breaking down the moves that the stop-motion puppet was making.

This timeline for each eye shot in the film would also indicate every time there would be a light flash or shadow pass on the puppet. With this puppet's actions indicated in colours, I could teach the actor to replicate the head moves. Once the moves were rehearsed, Chris and Maciek could then direct the actors for the context of the scene while I would call out the moves, and light flashes, shadows, etc.

The actors were incredible at learning their choreographed moves, and giving great acting performances. We had Laurie Maher (Tutli-Putli) cry for two long days of eye takes for the dining car scenes.

Depending on the complexity of the shot, we would film between 15-20 takes of eyes for each scene supplying a range of acting, and a varying degree of head angles. Chris and Maciek would then review the takes and make a final decision based only on acting, and then I would import the take, and try a quick test on the puppet footage to see if I could make the timing and moves work. Very few takes had to be discarded, so I got the angles I needed, and Chris and Maciek got the acting take they wanted.

Matching the eyes to the puppet footage presented many unique problems. When you film a person going through their moves, it never matches up... ever! The timing is way off, no matter how hard you try. So I decided not to even try matching the timing, just the head angles and lights. One trick was to re-time the footage in an extreme way. This is what gives Tutli her stop-motion style of realism. The eyes are in fact "re-animated" frames. If I had a puppet take that lasted 200 frames, and the chosen eye take lasted 3,000 frames, I would selectively take only the frames that I could use to re-build the acting performances whilst staying within the restrictions of the moves and light changes. Tutli might need to blink over 10 frames, so I could re-create a blink which retains the acting from the video blink that lasts 20+ frames. For example, you can make a blink sleepy or sudden with the same take if it's re-timed differently.

I tried at the beginning to rely on the computer for tracking but it wasn't nearly subtle enough. I decided that placing the eyes by hand for each frame was the only way to do it, and was actually faster. I would use alpha masks to remove all of the actor apart from their eyes, eyebrows, and partial under-eye, using varying feathered edges to match the facial structure of the puppet. This required a lot of painting experience. Many pieces were painted still patches, touched up in Photoshop, and positioned over problem joins or missing skin, fading in and out over time.

This was one hurdle, another was matching colour. Almost every frame of Tutli-Putli flickers because she is on a moving train. The only way to match eyes into this was to film as many of the big flashes at the time of the eye take, the rest have to be created with brightness and contrast tools, and colour balancing the darks, mediums and highlights to match every frame. Film grain was matched. Motion blurs [were matched], and making the eyes look like they were behind dirty glass in some shots.

Making Tutli's puppet hair fall back over her composited eyes was a handy little trick I used.

Filming the eyes would take about 3 hours per shot, compositing them seamlessly into a shot would take about 2 to 10 days.

ET: What software applications were in your compositing toolbox?

JW: I used Adobe After Effects for the compositing, and Photoshop to paint the facial patches. After Effects had its quirks, but it was quite solid over four years. From the start of the film in 2003 I went through 3 versions of After Effects.

ET: In the four years that Madame Tutli-Putli was in production, computer and video hardware got faster and more flexible while software became more powerful. As time went on, did this allow you to do more in less time, or did it open up more options?

JW: No, I got faster with practice, but the computer was always a bit slow. This project has been a 2D effect from the start so compositing shouldn't be too hard on the computer. However, as your readers will know, being able to flip through your last few frames in stop-motion is crucial to developing the flow of the move. Sometimes I would have to manipulate the eyes so much that the computer was never fast enough at frame advancing all the separate layers, masks, and colour effects attached to each eye. This was always a problem. This effect has to be in full resolution mode all the time to see if it matches. Very slow.

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May 25, 2007
We're still picking our jaws up off the floor a month after checking out the website for Style5, a new Toronto-based studio that's all about applying bolder, contemporary illustrative style to animation. We virtually sat down with creative director Sam Chou for a quick e-mail interview. (Thanks to Kino Kid for coming up with the questions.)

Emru Townsend: How did this madness come about and where do you want it to go?

Sam Chou: You're right, it is madness! We started Style5 because we are passionate about animation, both Chuck [Gammage] and I are traditional animators and we love the medium, but we were disapointed by how animation is viewed here in North America. It's a form of art, and a technique to tell a story, there are no limits... infinite possibilities! So why are there so many boundaries? And why are we still doing wacky talking animals?

Style5 is our venture to change people's view on animation.

ET: I don't think we've ever seen a studio in North America with such a high percentage of non-white creators. Proportionally, boutique or no, that's just weird (and good). Is this a plus or minus in Canada? In the US? Internationally?

SC: Hey, you're right! (I actually never noticed that.)

We chose all of our designers because we love their work. They all have great insight on culture and what's going on in the world, and it shows in their art. I think it's very important for an artist to have that. I guess that's what makes us different.

The world is getting smaller and we see it every day. Everything is changing, not just film or television. North America is changing. The world is changing.

Is is important to be culturally diverse? Definitely!

ET: Would you cringe from or embrace the word "urban" to define your sensibilities? How do you define the word "urban?"

SC: Urban. Hmmmm... The only reason why I'd cringe is because of the overuse of the word. "Urban-chic condo," "urban music," "urban cell-phone plan." It seems to be the "it" word now. Otherwise, you're right. We get much of our inspiration from the city. The fashion, the sounds, the music, the dirt and the grime of the city, we see graffiti everyday, it's all around us. It affects and inspires us.

ET: What type of music do you listen to and how does it influence your art?

SC: Music is my biggest influence by far. I have too many favorites... Album Leaf, Ratatat, Air, Metric, The Feathers, RJD2, Kid Koala, Supercar. I've recently been obsessed with 80's mashups.

ET: You list a series in development, The Wrong Block, as a recent project. Can you tell us about that?

SC: The Wrong Block is a series we are working on. It's a serial crime/action adventure. It follows a middle-aged, tough-as-nails detective as he's tracking down an old adversary, who has kidnapped a billionaire heiress.

The way it's written is quite interesting, it's almost like one story being told three different ways, through the eyes of three different characters. Keep checking the site, we are going to be putting a development page up with lots of new artwork.

ET: What kind of project would you like to work on right now? What kind of client do you want to walk in and say, "I want you to do _____ for me."

SC: I've always wanted to do a sneaker commercial, all traditionally animated. You don't see that too often. My dream project, though, is an RJD2 music video, or a Kid Koala.

ET: What animation do you think people are ready for that they aren't getting right now?

SC: I'd like to see an animated feature, aimed for adults that has action, intrigue, mystery, murder! There, I said it! Murder!

ET: What are you watching these days? (Live or animated.)

SC: Wacky talking animals.

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May 16, 2007
Last Friday I sat down to talk with Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski, who make up Clyde Henry Productions. They were getting ready to leave for France, where their ambitious stop-motion film Madame Tutli-Putli was selected for the International Critics' Week at the Cannes film festival. We spoke at length about cinematic influences, our previous encounter at the beginning of production, and why comparing them to the Brothers Quay is a bad idea; you can find the podcast here, if you don't already subscribe to the feed. (And why not? The link's in the sidebar to the right.) Also, check out our video podcast, where I present some excerpts from the 2001 animatic of the film. (See, if you subscribed you'd already know about that.)

If you're not currently in France, you won't have much of a chance to see Madame Tutli-Putli in full just as yet. I'd recommend that you head over to the official website and take a look.

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May 15, 2007

Clyde Henry Productions is Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski, a team of multimedia artists who have been working together in animation and effects since 1997. But for about half that time, the pair locked themselves in a dark room to produce Madame Tutli-Putli, a seventeen-minute stop-motion short for the National Film Board of Canada. The title character, a demure and hesitating young woman, boards a train for an overnight journey in what appears to be 1920s Europe. But her journey is filled with strange passengers and even stranger events.

Madame Tutli-Putli is exquisitely produced, with meticulously crafted puppets and carefully worn sets and props. It's a wordless fever-dream of a story that nails you to your chair—even in its quietest moments, you get the feeling that something isn't quite right. Part of that unsettling feeling comes from what Chris Lavis calls the "gimmick" of digitally compositing human eyes onto the puppets, which produces a haunting effect that's difficult to ignore.

I spoke with the Clydes last Friday, just a few days before they were off to France. Madame Tutli-Putli was selected for the International Critics' Week at the Cannes film festival, and it's also slated to screen at the Annecy animation festival a few weeks after that. When we met at a local pub, they'd just finished several whirlwind days of publicity, and were recharging their batteries with a few pints before getting ready for their trip.

Clyde Henry Productions' next project is The White Circus, a feature in development at the National Film Board.

Clyde Henry Productions
Madame Tutli-Putli
Marcy Page spotlight (from the July 2005 issue of fps)

Photo credit: National Film Board of Canada

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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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March 7, 2007
The Once Upon a Time Walt Disney exhibit opens tomorrow at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, and we did a tour of the exhibit yesterday. We've got a lot to say about the exhibit, but right now I'd like to point you to our first video podcast, in which we give a taste of what's on display, and interview curator Bruno Girveau. (Anime fans will also want to check out the interview for a surprise Girveau drops toward the end.)

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On March 8th, the exhibition Once Upon a Time Walt Disney opens at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Yesterday we did a tour of the exhibit, which presents the work of the Walt Disney Studio from 1928 (the first Mickey Mouse cartoon, Plane Crazy) through to 1967 (The Jungle Book), in its artistic context. Hundreds of production drawings, concept sketches, background paintings, character studies and film clips are presented side by side with classical artwork and contemporary media to show how Walt Disney and his artists drew from the world around them to create animated movies that are still astonishing to this day. In this podcast I interview the exhibit's curator, Bruno Girveau.

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

Once Upon a Time Walt Disney (hardcover)
Il était une fois Walt Disney (hardcover)

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On March 8th, the exhibition Once Upon a Time Walt Disney opens at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Yesterday we did a tour of the exhibit, which presents the work of the Walt Disney Studio from 1928 (the first Mickey Mouse cartoon, Plane Crazy) through to 1967 (The Jungle Book), in its artistic context. Hundreds of production drawings, concept sketches, background paintings, character studies and film clips are presented side by side with classical artwork and contemporary media to show how Walt Disney and his artists drew from the world around them to create animated movies that are still astonishing to this day. You can see a sampling of the exhibit in this video podcast, as well as my interview with curator Bruno Girveau.

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

Once Upon a Time Walt Disney (hardcover)
Il était une fois Walt Disney (hardcover)

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February 10, 2007

Earlier this week Hellboy: Sword of Storms, the first in a series of original animated Hellboy movies, came out on DVD—just a little over four months after its debut on Cartoon Network. Last December, Emru Townsend spoke with Tad Stones, who wrote, directed and produced the movie.

Hellboy Animated

Hellboy DVDs, books and more

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October 26, 2006

One year ago today, we held our second Animation Innovator event, in which we invited Corpse Bride animation co-director Mike Johnson to come to Montreal to speak about his craft and his work on the movie. In this podcast we revisit that event, as well as present some new material.

Film Clips
Mike Johnson on HypaSpace (2:05, 20.2 MB, MPEG-4)

Natasha Eloi
Matt Forsythe
Kevin Holden and Trudie Mason
Mark Osborne
Space: The Imagination Station

fps Links
Mike Johnson interview
Animation Innovator: Mike Johnson Photo Gallery
Corpse Bride review
Suggest an Animation Innovator Guest

Corpse Bride DVDs, CDs, books and more
The Devil Came Down to Georgia (as part of the Animals Should Not Try to Act Like People compilation)

Credits: Photo © Warner Bros. Entertainment; podcast opening and closing audio from The Corpse Bride soundtrack

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August 28, 2006

In our second podcast, I interview Canadian animator Chris Hinton, tracing the course of his animation career from the mid-1970s to the present, much of which has been through the National Film Board of Canada. Hinton's work has evolved considerably over the last thirty years, starting with the kind of cartoony style that most people identify with animation, and now leaning toward abstract explorations of music and sound. But in all cases, his work exhibits a twitchy vibrancy that's all his own. He's been nominated twice for the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film twice, for Blackfly (1991) and Nibbles (2003). Both films are very different in appearance and execution, but they're both distinctly Chris Hinton films.

For the last 17 years, Hinton has also been teaching animation at Concordia University here in Montreal (and, in fact, I was among his first students). In the course of this interview, we also explored his observations about today's emerging animators.

Animation Lingo
In the podcast, we make references to fields and smears. A field guide is a reference for standardized frame sizes to accommodate both the film/TV viewing area and the animation camera. The higher the field number, the larger the frame. A smear is, literally, a smear of colour in a frame that indicates something moving quickly; essentially, hand-drawn motion blur.

Film Clips
Blackfly (1991; 0:25, 1.3 MB, MPEG-1)
Watching TV (1994; 0:30, 1.5 MB, MPEG-1)
Flux (2002; 0:25; 1.3 MB, MPEG-1)
cNote (2004; 0:34, 1.7 MB, MPEG-1)

Chris Hinton
Dennis Tupicoff
Cinémathèque québécoise
National Film Board of Canada

Credits: Photo provided by the National Film Board of Canada; podcast opening and closing audio from cNote

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March 25, 2006

Emru Townsend interviews British animator Phil Mulloy, who was recently in Montreal to host a retrospective of his work at the Cinémathèque québécoise. Phil Mulloy is a prolific animator who has created over twenty films in the last sixteen years, and in many of his works, the landscape and characters are stark and grotesque: rendered in black paint and ink, his characters are mostly in silhouette, with skeletal bodies, large, bony hands, and distended mouths with jutting teeth. Animation is accomplished by manipulating cutouts of his painted and drawn images. And while his plots have varied, they often feature themes of sex, persecution, violence, the body, and religion.

Emru Townsend, Phil Mulloy, and Marco de Blois.

Film Clips
Cowboys: High Noon (1991; 0:43, 2.0 MB, MPEG-1)
The Sex Life of a Chair
(1998; 0:59, 2.7 MB, MPEG-1)
Intolerance I (2000; 0:59, 2.7 MB, MPEG-1)
Intolerance II (2001; 1:00, 2.7 MB, MPEG-1)
The Christies: Mister Yakamoto (2006; 0:27, 2.0 MB, MPEG-1)

Phil Mulloy
Cinémathèque québécoise
Lotte Reiniger
David Anderson

Credits: Photo by Tamu Townsend; podcast introduction audio from Intolerance I

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