Sunday, August 31, 2008

Edision and Leo- An Historic Moment

I'm very excited to see that Neil Burns' film Edison and Leo
is the opening film for the Canada First program for this year's Toronto International Film Festival, which runs September 3-14. This film marks an historic moment in the medium of stop motion animation in Canada: it is our first stop motion animated feature length film.

In a sense, this marks a sort of "arrival" upon the scene for the medium in this country. South of the border, and in Europe and the UK, we've seen numerous stop motion feature length projects (Nightmare Before Christmas, James And The Giant Peach, Curse Of The Were-Rabbit, the upcoming Coraline), but until this film's release, Canada has "only" produced shorts, TV series work, and TV specials. Canada produces some wonderful stop motion work (which of course I'll make every effort to profile on this blog), but a feature is, well... a feature.

A feature is a big budget endevour (I understand the film had a budget of $10 million, which buys a whole lot of puppet, trust me). And a project could only get that money if investors sincerely believed that they'd make that money back (and more, of course) through sales and broadcast. In other words, there's serious money to be made on stop motion in Canada. If there's money to made on something, there will be more of it.

What this film's existence also means is that a production model has now been established for feature work. It's one thing to short an indie short, in terms of complexity of production. Then it's something else to shoot a major TV series. Then, there's feature work. Once one feature has been shot in this medium, a template now exists for work flow in terms of pre-production, production, and post (not to mention promotion, distribution, and sales). What worked? What didn't? How can it be tweaked? And regardless of how buggy the flow might have been (which I actually know nothing about, so it might have been flawless) it happened. It got done, and it is out the door. That accomplishment brings with it a certain momentum. It's been done once, it flowed through a pipe-line. And that means it can happen again.

As far as a stop motion feature signaling that our nation has "arrived" in terms of crew abilities, Canada has been "feature ready" for years. We've got no shortage of artists and animators that can easily handle the demands of making something for the "big screen," so no worries there.

I'm sure the film will look gorgeous. And I'm sure it will have some wonderful character-based animation and gorgeous technical animation. But to a degree, all it takes to make something look nice is getting enough money to pay the right people to do what they do (using the proper facilities and equipment). What I really hope for is that the story is there. A feature-length story, if it sags, can sag big. And no amount of beautiful sets, props, lighting, music, puppets, and animation can cover for that.

What's encouraging is that the film's written (primarily) by George Toles, who has written scripts for a lot of Guy Maddin's films. This suggests certain adjectives when considering what the story might be like: mad-capped, frenzied, very unexpected, strangely funny, oddly tender. I suppose what I hope for is a certain amount of madness and oddity that is still somehow both character-based and driven. Considering one attribute of the main character is that he somehow hears through his teeth (darn those childhood accidents), it would seem the off-centredness is there. I just hope it also has heart, and that it makes me care about the characters.

If the story is wonderful, this film could do very well indeed. If it's less than wonderful? Well it's still time to celebrate for stop motion in Canada, for all the reason above and more. We'll see when it premieres and the reviews start rolling in.

Finally, I'm excited because of who is directing this historic film- Neil Burns. I've had the pleasure of working with Neil on a stop mo TV series a few years back. As with any production, it was a bit like trench warfare- keep your head down, do your job well, try to not get blown up. Neil was a bastion of calmness and good nature. He's an extremely talented, creative, and funny human being. And, I'm happy to report, he's a very nice human being as well.

Without allowing this posting to decay into that ever-beckoning vortex known as "cynicism," I can honestly say that it's not always the nice human beings that seem to get ahead in media production. It does, at times, seem that it's the very people who treat others unfairly by taking advantage of them or giving them the "Sure, but what have you done for me lately?" routine, that get ahead. This can become very discouraging, as the years go by and the jerks keep rising. Seeing bad behaviour rewarded doesn't particularly fill one with hope for mankind... nor for the world of media production.

Neil Burns is a nice person. And it's incredibly rewarding to see a nice person helming such an important project. Win-win.

You go, Neil!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

My Heart Is Pure

I might as well get this sort of thing out of the way immediately.

On this blog, I will be using images and video clips that I do not hold the rights too. I will be doing this liberally, I imagine, either posting them on this site, or linking to them somewhere else. As the Wild West nature of the internet continues, I probably don’t even need to explain or justify or discuss my use of these sorts of images and clips. It’s like jaywalking, or wrestling gorillas while wearing cowboy boots. Every body's doing it, right?

But personally, as someone who does (upon occasion) actual make a work of “art” (is animation “art”?), and wants to get PAID for making that work of art, I really need to explain where I stand on this topic, so I can sleep at night, and so you don’t call your lawyer (I’m talking to you, Steven Spielberg).

First, anything I write about will be to shed light or insights upon a topic. Take my earlier Barnaby entry, for example. It’s my hope that by writing about Barnaby, it will lead more people to seek out the strip, which might lead to a publisher actually reprinting the strip. And that’s good for Barnaby (and whomever has financial stakes in the property). What about a piece I write that does not speak favourably of a topic? I still feel that even by writing something critical about a flaw in “something” will still lead readers to check out that “something,” so they can decide if they agree with me. Again, there’s no such thing as bad press. And any negative postings will be thoroughly backed up by carefully considered evidence.

I won't post an image or video, or link to an image or video that is hosted somewhere else if, in preparing that posting, I can verify that the artist or rights holder in question does not want their work posted or linked to. And if that artist or rights holder wants me to take something down, I will do it in a heartbeat.

And of course, if I'm profiling a local or indie artist that I think needs exposure, I will certainly credit the hell out of the work in question.

All this perhaps seemingly pointless hand-writing mumbo-jumbo stems from my own efforts in the current digital domain to ensure, to the best of my abilities, that I get paid for my animation. It's a wonderful thing that someone can post one my films (not that there's many to post), and the world can watch it. I can then be seen by literally millions of viewers, and that can generate any type of positive professional contacts and relationships.

But what if I didn't post the film online? This has happened to me recently, and when I contacted the website (that claims to SHARE its revenue with artists, 50-50) to tell them that I didn't post my own film and as a result am getting absolutely NO money from the deal, I received absolute silence in return. No traditional, "brick and mortar" shop could get away with this, but online it's happening all over the place. That being said, the film has still been viewed several thousands of times, and all the credits are intact, so hey- great exposure, right? But oh yeah, what about that money I'm owed?

As it happens, this film now has a "real" distributor, so let them (the distributor) be the bad cop and make a fuss. Because since they now hold the rights to my film, it's theirs to generate money with, and if anyone else is showing it, they are infringing on the distributor's chance to make themselves (and me) money. Also, I can only imagine the distributor has a lawyer or two at its disposal (which is one or two more than I have on hand).

I like it when others player bad cop for me. It comes from having a lot of big brothers growing up on the occasionally hostile playground.

Last point to make me sleep better? I'm not making a cent off this blog, and thus am not making money off the hard work of other artists.

What if I land a big juicy book deal out of this blog in a year's time? Will I share the proceeds with all the artists whose work has helped make this blog wonderful?

At that point, you'll have to speak to the very expensive lawyer that I will have acquired, mere moments after inking said deal.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Barnaby- The Sly Little Comic Strip

Barnaby was primarily a daily comic strip, created by Crockett Johnson (who also created the extremely famous children's book, Harold and The Purple Crayon). Barnaby ran from 1942 till approximately 1946, when Johnson turned the strip over to other artists.

The strip revolved around an unassuming little boy named Barnaby Baxter and his fairy godfather, Mr. O’Malley. Long before Bart Simpson coined "Don't have a cow," Mr. O'Malley had his own catch phrase, in the form of “Cushlamochree!” (which is hard to pronounce but a lot of fun to see when printed in a comic strip). Mr. O'Malley was essentially a friendly version of W.C. Fields (with fairy wings), and was a master of self-delusion. Charmingly, Mr. O'Malley always thought he had everything under control, but in fact he only made situations more complicated and messy. And it was often out of that personality trait that the conflicts (and comedy) grew.

Additional characters included Barnaby’s parents who never seemed to be able to see Mr. O’Malley, a fact that was always nicely played for is comic potential, and which leaves me wondering what influence this might have had on Bill Watterson when he developed his world for Calvin and Hobbes. And there was Gus The Ghost, who was very timid and easily scared. He also wore glasses, and fancied himself a writer (yes, a ghost writer).

As you might assume from a strip with a ghost character, the stories were often spooky, autumnal, and a bit mysterious. But they were gently so. Story lines would run for several strips, and involved surprisingly engaging plots of criminal intrigue, mysterious goings-on, strange dark figures who lurked in the shadows… all surrounded by slyly subtle humor, richly layered characters, honest tenderness… and silence.

Aren’t all comic strips silent? Of course, but Barnaby in particular. It might have been due to the strip's dialogue-heavy quality, which made it feel like a written story that just happened to have pictures. Perhaps it was the super-tight, conservative visual style Johnson employed, in which there was little movement perceived between panels. It might have been both facets, working together. But for a strip that contained so much silly, rambunctious adventure, it’s remarkable how it played out in such a quiet fashion. For me, there’s no other strip that I’ve come across that’s like Barnaby, in that it actually seems to define itself, at least in part, by quietness.

Typesetting as opposed to hand-done lettering was another distinctive facet of this strip. In his book Encyclopedia of Comic Art, Maurice Horn states that Johnson used typesetting because it would allow him to cram more words into his strip (I wonder if Johnson would entirely agree with that if he were alive today). The more words you use, the more story you can potentially tell. But comics are a visual language on a very primal level. When words appear in a strip, they possess a visual quality above and beyond the meaning derived from the actual words. In other words (no pun intended), Barnaby had a very distinctive look, a particular visual appeal, simply because the lettering looked different. The typesetting, in my opinion, lent the strip a formal quality which to my young eyes signified “grown up”. It meant this strip needed to be taken more seriously than others. This was no Garfield. This strip meant business.

But of course, the content was very silly indeed. And the resulting contrast between visual style and content (brought about through the use of typesetting) lent Barnaby a dynamic tension between its look and its content. This, much like its use of silence, helped mark the strip as unique.

Then there was the wonderfully balanced tone of the strip. It was so gentle, so perfectly innocent, that even when the characters were “hot on the trail” of what, for all they knew, might turn out to be a cold-blooded murderer, the reader never worried. The reader always knew that in the end it would turn out not to be a murderer, but an ice cream salesman who got lost in the woods. That’s a storyline I’ve just made up, by the way. But it’s fairly Barnaby-esque, trust me. It makes a lot of sense that in Encyclopedia of Comic Art, Horn suggests that some of Johnson’s biggest influences were the films of Frank Capra. There’s a gentle silliness shared by the films and the strip, a silliness that both entertains and maintains respect for the audience’s intelligence.

I’m OK that Barnaby isn’t around anymore as a current strip. I don’t think it could exist in this era, and there’s nothing inherently “wrong” about that fact. The world changes, and in the end it actually serves to make this strip more prized, more distinctive. But what I really do hope for is that someone will soon reprint the strips. The version I knew was published from Ballantine in the mid 1980s (pictured above, which I read when I was about twelve, for you math majors that want to know how old I am). These reprints are hard to come by, and are usually quite expensive. The time is ripe for someone to collect the original Barnaby strips and bring them into print again. And they (whomever these saints might be) must promote the collection appropriately, so that as many people as possible can be touched by this special little comic world.

In the meantime, what are Barnaby fans to do? We can start by praising the efforts of Philip Nel, who has built the go-to place online for Crockett Johnson info, and is working on a definitive biography of the man. In a recent email exchange with Philip, he told me he’s aiming to have it written by the end of this year, if all goes well. Maybe we can hope to see it published in 2009? Hopefully with lots of illustrations, and maybe even a Barnaby strip or two? Or twenty? The bio is actually a double bio, as Johnson’s wife, Ruth Krauss, was a powerhouse storyteller in her own right, having published numerous children’s books, including The Growing Story (1947). It’s a beautiful story about a little boy who can’t wait to grow bigger. It's set amidst the changing seasons on a farm. I chose this particular story to read to my own child, while he was still in his Mommy's tummy.

Start them early, I say.

I sincerely hope you can get your hands on some Barnaby comics. With luck, you’ll come across them on a crisp autumn afternoon, and you can sit under a nice tree amidst the fallen leaves, and enjoy. Say hi to Gus The Ghost for me, if you see him.

But say it quietly. Remember, he frightens easily.