May 31, 2006
We've got more pictures up from the Tokyo International Anime Fair for your viewing pleasure. Check out the new photos starting from here, or go right to the beginning and see them all.

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May 30, 2006
Actually, fps has already gone quarterly, as evidenced by our eighth issue's June release date. But now we've gone and made it official: the magazine will now be coming out four times a year instead of six. But it's not that we're getting slack; we're just getting more focused. Each issue will now be 50% larger than the old issues, which means you're getting the same number of pages every year. Basically, this allows us to really concentrate on each issue's theme, and make each of those pages count for more.

This also means that each issue will increase in price by 50% ($1.49 instead of 99 cents), but over a year the cost comes out the same. Just one detail: if you've already subscribed, then your remaining issues will be filled out as usual—only each one of those issues is now bigger. (It's like automatic super-sizing, without the trans fats.) In fact, if you haven't subscribed yet, I'd suggest you do—we're keeping the current subscription rate until next Monday, when #8 comes out—which means your five bucks gets you six issues, not four. Better jump on this while you can; we've got some great material lined up for the next year.
May 21, 2006
Merlin CrossinghamThe San Francisco group AOD has announced further details of their upcoming August convention, and joining the event is Merlin Crossingham of Aardman Animations. Merlin is one of Aardman's superstars, having worked on Chicken Run, Tortoise and Hare, and Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit. He joins a growing list of esteemed guests of honour. The non-profit animation fan group AOD was founded back in 1997, and this is the group's fourth convention. For more info, see the Festival Watch section or visit www.aodsf.org

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May 17, 2006
FeedEarlier in the year, I included Stash Media magazine in a mini-review of sites offering the latest in VFX, animation, & advertising content via subscription. It looks like Stash has begun a new collective blog with a new channel called Feed, offering up to 100 contributors the chance to post content and opinions on animation, vfx and design. "By shifting away from the traditional editor-as-gate-keeper model we expect to create an unpredictable, vibrant and democratic mix of information and entertainment centered around animation, vfx and design that will evolve a life of its own." (from the Stash feed-info page) Off to a strong start, I particularily like the post about the PictoOrphanage. I do believe collective blogging is where it's at.
May 16, 2006
Our first batch of photos from this year's Tokyo International Anime Fair is now live. Dragons, Canadians and Spongebob, oh my!

See the photogallery

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May 9, 2006
Japan's market for anime OAVs (Original Animation Videos, or direct-to-video productions) was kicked off mostly by accident. While Dallos was the first OAV, it wasn't until an aborted television project by the name of Megazone 23 was patched up and released straight to video that the category caught fire. Without broadcast TV restrictions, the creators were able to put in sex and gore, much to the delight of the teen and college crowd, who ate it up. With that beachhead established, OAVs opened up to a variety of styles and titles, including series made for video (Bubblegum Crisis, Giant Robo) and extensions of TV shows (Ranma 1/2, Tenchi Muyo). The other beautiful thing about the OAV format is the lack of time constraints. Rather than being shackled to the half-hour or hour format and having to pace a show to accommodate advertising, episode lengths or movies could vary as needed.

OAVs have been woefully underused here. When Steven Spielberg announced a Tiny Toon Adventures direct-to-video project in the early 1990s, I hoped that it might be our Megazone. It was, sort of—Warner Bros. would go on to release such titles as Batman and Mr. Freeze: SubZero, Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker, Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman as tie-ins to the animated Batman series; more recently, Universal released Van Helsing: The London Assignment and The Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Fury as movie tie-ins, and of course there was Warner's The Animatrix. The most recent was Marvel Comics' Ultimate Avengers: The Movie, and there are the various Disney sequels.

In fourteen years, is that all we have to show? Well, no. Kids' animation has actually done fairly well in the OAV space, including breakout productions like VeggieTales. But where are the OAVs for the rest of us? Warner and Universal have shown that they have the resources to make high-quality, less kid-centric OAV animation, and they have the marketing muscle to make the category a reality. So where is it? DVDs are so cheap and there are so many outlets for them—particularly the Internet—that they would also have the option to use the OAV market to release smaller, less expensive and more targeted works, as in Japan.

And speaking of targeted works and the Internet, there’s no reason those same companies can’t release some of the quirkier animated series and features lurking in their vaults. While it can be argued that, say, Twice Upon a Time has more limited appeal than the latest Pixar movie and therefore it's harder to justify the cost of mastering a DVD, the truth is that smaller companies like Unearthed Films (who released Rock & Rule) and anime company AnimEigo have been doing exactly that for some time, with far fewer resources. AnimEigo even has a great strategy: they get preorders for certain fan-favourite titles, and base the volume of the run and the cost of each disc on the amount of preorders received. By reducing the risk, they maximize profitability. And by showing they actually listen to consumers, they gain customer loyalty. Best of all, self-interest works in their favour: when I preordered the Macross boxed set, I told as many people as I could about it, because the more people preordered, the lower the cost of the set would be. Companies love it when they can get their customers to do advertising for them, so it works out for everyone.

So, again, where's our OAV market?

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May 8, 2006
Super Dimension Fortress Macross is inarguably one of the signature anime titles of the 1980s, and the source material for the first part of Harmony Gold's Robotech. There have many spinoffs over the years of varying quality and popularity, but the ones that everyone can agree were the best have all been given a decent English-language release since the advent of DVD—except for the first, best spinoff of them all.

Macross: Ai Oboete Imasuka (Do You Remember Love) was released in Japan in the summer of 1984, a year and a half after the TV series' debut, compressing the series' 36-episode narrative into just under two hours with a lush score and gorgeous visuals that took advantage of the larger and wider scope of the movie screen.

Macross: Do You Remember Love movie is also a textbook example of how to adapt a popular TV series to create an equally popular movie without alienating the people who made the series popular in the first place. It's different enough that it's fresh, but similar enough that the familiar touchstones are comforting. And consider this: the movie's a third longer than a typical Disney animated feature, took half the time to make and no doubt cost a lot less as well. And yet it’s captivating enough that the lack of Disney-quality character animation is entirely beside the point.

Throw in Macross Flashback 2012 (a direct-to-video showcase for Mari Iijima's vocals as idol-singer character Lynn Minmei, mostly made up of recycled TV and movie footage, plus a what-happened next coda to the story) as a featurette and everybody’s happy. And while we’re at it, release the movie on the big screen a few months before the DVD release, like the Cowboy Bebop movie.

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May 7, 2006
In the fall of 1992, two new television series came out that were unlike anything else on the air. Both, remarkably, were from Hanna-Barbera, who until then seemed resigned to endless regurgitations of their old characters.

Set in a world of anthropomorphic cats, SWAT Kats: The Radical Squadron was loud, fast and full of intense action, which was something of a shock at a time when people were fretting about violence and cartoons' general lack of educational merit.

But the real surprise was a little something called 2 Stupid Dogs, featuring the nameless big dog and little dog who, as the title suggested, weren't particularly bright. Each seven-minute short featured simple situations—the little dog falls in love with a wind-up poodle, the big dog gets his head stuck in a hole in a fence—that were played for maximum laughs. There was also a minor cast of characters like Hollywood, the big, loud, generally kind-hearted man prone to bellowing; Kenny, the lovelorn and generally anxious schoolboy; a tiny kitten who, like all felines, the little dog was terrified of; and Red, aka Little Red Riding Hood, an obnoxious nearsighted child who starred in a trio of cartoons produced with a little help from John Kricfalusi.

The beauty of 2 Stupid Dogs was that it echoed the classic Looney Tunes shorts much better than other cartoons before or since that claimed they were doing the same thing. Each episode was personality-driven; the various players were placed in certain situations (Hollywood even showed up as a grieving woman, five-o'clock shadow and all), and their particular personalities guided the action. Also like the Looney Tunes, each episode was a stand-alone, but you could quickly figure out the basic relationships and traits of the characters even if you had never seen the show before. And since it rarely depended on pop-culture gags (the exception being an extended Partridge Family takeoff, which works even if you don't know who they are), the gags really are timeless.

Appearing as the middle segment in the show's first season was Super Secret Secret Squirrel, an updated version of the 1965 Hanna-Barbera cartoon that, in true retro style, was sometimes more 1960s in aesthetic than the original. Sending up spy shows in general with only the mildest of 1990s self-consciousness, the new Secret Squirrel, like 2 Stupid Dogs, was just plain funny. There were only thirteen Secret Squirrels made (the second season of 2 Stupid Dogs was Squirrel-free), but they were all dead-on.

Both 2 Stupid Dogs and Super Secret Secret Squirrel each used limited animation techniques but did so differently, resulting in different aesthetics, cleverly reminding viewers that "simple" and "limited" animation, used effectively, could produce amazing results. Many of the people behind these shows, like Larry Huber, Craig McCracken, Rob Renzetti, Paul Rudish and Genndy Tartakovsky, would go on to extend those principles in their own shows, like Dexter's Laboratory, My Life As a Teenage Robot, Powerpuff Girls, and Samurai Jack—to name but a few—when Hanna-Barbera became Cartoon Network Studios. It's no exaggeration to say that 2 Stupid Dogs and Super Secret Secret Squirrel heralded the birth of an era.

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May 6, 2006
Partisans may believe that the Disney and anime styles are incompatible, but 1988's Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland would prove them wrong. Based on Winsor McCay's luscious and inventive Sunday comic strip from a century ago, Nemo, like Mighty Orbots, combined American storytelling with Japanese animation. (Coincidentally, Tokyo Movie Shinsha was the production studio involved with both projects.)

Nemo, however, took it further, combining Disney-style character designs and full character animation with Japanese backgrounds, visual effects and staging. It was a true best-of-both-worlds approach that worked like a charm, though there was no real attempt to mimic McCay's particular brand of meticulous draftsmanship. (Whether that's good or bad is up to you.)

Narratively, it also worked out pretty well. If I had to guess, I'd say it was Ray Bradbury's story that provided the fanciful and fantastic underpinnings, Chris Columbus's screenplay that provided the rhythm, and TMS's designs, storyboarding and animation that provided the convincing moments of unreality, fear and menace.

Like the comics, the action takes place in Slumberland, which the young, hyper-imaginative Nemo visits in his dreams. Nemo is fêted by Slumberland monarch King Morpheus and promptly gets himself into trouble, egged on by the rascally Flip. Since McCay's strip didn't really have an ongoing narrative, it's entirely understandable that the movie had to be fleshed out with Nemo's accidental unleashing of the Nightmare King and subsequent quest to set things right. And there isn't anything wrong with the story per se. But Nemo gets a little shaky in the details, as some of the strip's rougher edges are sanded down for the modern kid audience. Flip, originally a shabby-looking, cigar-chomping, ne'er do well clown is somewhat rehabilitated from someone you'd yank your kids away from to a well-meaning guy who just makes bad choices. The stereotypical nappy-headed jungle native Impy had to go, of course (though in McCay's strip he's more benign than most such depictions), but his absence is balanced by the introduction of a goggle-wearing flying squirrel named Icarus. (Yes, a goggle-wearing flying squirrel. Hokey smokes, how shameless can you get?) Overall, though, the movie holds together, on par with other low-key but solidly constructed and enjoyable features like Cats Don't Dance.

Nemo's real tragedy is in the history of its production and release. Delays kept pushing the release date back (the project had started in 1981), and then the movie seemed to disappear entirely. It came out in Japan in 1988, and was released in a gorgeous laserdisc set in 1989. (The textured black box had the single word "Nemo" in McCay-era typography, with a single shaft of light illuminating Nemo clambering onto his bed, which is barely restrained by gravity—a reminder of how uninspired most DVD box design is these days.) In 1992 Nemo finally appeared with little fanfare in North American cinemas, less ten minutes of its running time, and disappeared just as quietly, despite decent reviews.

About a year and a half ago, Funimation released Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland on DVD, restoring it to its original running time. But that's only part of the story. They didn't include the laserdisc's extras, like a featurette on Winsor McCay's pioneering animation work (including the Little Nemo short film from 1911), and a now-commonplace featurette showing how voices and songs were recorded and dance routines were used for reference. They also didn't include the two short pilot films—consider them animated proofs of concept—directed by Yoshifumi Kondo and Osamu Dezaki. (You can see the Kondo-directed pilot film on Google Video.) Nor did they include the reproduced storyboards, model sheets and concept drawings. If you could see all these things, you would feel the same sense of loss I've felt for the last fourteen years, wondering what it would be like to see more collaborations like these.

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May 5, 2006
The word cognoscenti gets thrown around a lot in some circles, but when it comes to animation, Mark Mayerson deserves the title. I've been reading his analyses of animation and animators for at least twelve years now, and he never fails to find new ways to enlighten. (Which is why I'm quite happy he's contributed to fps many times over the years, starting with his essay on the making of Monster By Mistake. That appeared back in the days of our print magazine.)

Mark's had a website before—check out his Al Eugster page from when the Web was young—but I'm quite pleased to see that he's started his own blog, Mayerson on Animation. The first few posts are pure Mayerson: analyses of why Fred Moore and Bill Tytla's careers went the way they did after they left Disney; identifying animators who worked on specific scenes; and of course a nod to Al Eugster. I can't wait to see where he takes it from here.
Many people think that the 1980s Saturday-morning cartoon landscape was a wasteland, remarkable only for the sheer amount of badly animated and badly written shows that made it to air. I happen to be one of those people, but I admit there were a few gems out there, and none had quite the delightful playfulness and visual flair of 1984's Mighty Orbots.

Long before the "American anime" of Invasion: America and Gargoyles, Mighty Orbots was the real deal: conceived and written in the US, directed and animated in Japan, and with a production crew from both sides of the Pacific.

The Orbots were five robots built by young scientist Rob Simmons in the service of his boss Rondu of the Galactic Patrol, who also happens to be the father of Dia, the object of Rob's affection. (Rob's got a Superman/Clark Kent thing going; aside from Rondu, no one knows he's Mighty Orbots' commander.) When the five robots join together, they form the giant Mighty Orbots, who can lay the rock-'em, sock-'em hurt on big baddies—like the biggest, baddest of them all, the evil Umbra.

In some ways, Mighty Orbots offered little that was new. The plots were instantly recognizable to veterans of 1980s animated adventure shows: bad guy poses threat, team tries (and fails) to eliminate threat separately, and in the final minutes they come together as Mighty Orbots and, by dint of superhuman effort, save the day. Cue final joke and end credits. Most of the characters themselves were also archetypical: Bort is the gangly nervous wreck, the short and tubby Crunch eats everything in sight, and so on.

What Orbots lacked in originality, it made up in craft. The character designs, layouts and colour design were tighter, and the animation more dynamic and crisper, than just about anything else on TV, and there were plenty of the lighting effects and insanely dynamic camera moves that distinguished the anime of the time. Storywise, the show constantly walked a tightrope between straight-up action-adventure and a certain goofiness, embodied by Gary Owens's earnest voiceovers. The classic example comes from "Devil's Asteroid," when Mighty Orbots' escape route is suddenly cut off by a blast door. "Uh oh!" exclaims Owens. "Not even Mighty Orbots can break through the prison space-lock!" Two seconds and one thundering crash later, he sheepishly recants: "I guess I was wrong."

Silly? Sure. But it only works because the voice and the image combined totally sell the idea that Mighty Orbots can't break that door. In its own tongue-in-cheek way, Mighty Orbots was always that convincing. The show lasted only one season on ABC, but its look and attitude were a breath of fresh air.

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I usually like reading top-100 lists, because they're huge amounts of fun. On some rare occasions they're definitive, but that's not really the point; they're almost always incredibly subjective. What makes them interesting is the thought processes they set in motion, and the debates they spark.

Of course, I like reading top-100 lists, but I'm not that keen on writing them. Same for top-50, or even top-10 lists. But a top-5 list? That, I should be able to manage.

I was recently thinking about what titles would have to come out before I finally broke down and bought a high-definition DVD player, when it occurred to me that there were a number of significant titles that haven't even been released on plain old DVD as yet. So over the next few days, I'll present to you my personal list of DVDs that someone, somewhere really ought to get cracking on releasing.

And by all means, let me know what you think.

#5: Mighty Orbots
#4: Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland
#3: 2 Stupid Dogs/Super Secret Secret Squirrel
#2: Macross: Do You Remember Love
#1: Something New, Something Old

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May 1, 2006
Oh. Snap. We have obviously gone insane over here at the fps central complex. We're not only cooking up our fattest issue yet on the subject of anime, we're celebrating in advance with all kinds of crazy stuff. First out of the gate is our anime prize pack contest, where you can win one of ten stacks of swag. At the very least, you can win a pack of five CDs. But if you get all four of our trivia questions right and are lucky enough to get your name pulled out of our virtual hat, this is what you can pick up:
  • Armored Trooper Votoms: Stage 1 DVD
  • Gantz Season 1 DVD Collection
  • Samurai 7 Volume 1 DVD
  • Arjuna: Into The Another World Soundtrack CD
  • Beginnings CD
  • Chobits Original Soundtrack 002 CD
  • The End of Evangelion Soundtrack CD
  • Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex Original Soundtrack 2 CD
  • Gunparade March: Spirit of Samurai Original Soundtrack CD
  • Heat Guy J Original Soundtrack: Burn CD
Wait, did I say pick up? Sorry. We'll mail the whole thing right to your doorstep! Better get cracking—you've only got until the end of the month to get those entries in!

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