Sunday, September 28, 2008

Komaneko-The Curious Cat

Stop motion? Check.

Cute little kitty? Check.

Self-reflexive storyline that examines the process of stop motion animation? Check.

Japanese? Check.

What more do you want? Komaneko is a series of animated shorts about a cat and her efforts at making a stop motion film. At times her puppets behave as though they are truly puppets, in that they wait for Komaneko to bring them to life. At other times, they are alive under their own power. Of course, the whole show is being animated by a human animator, and this layering of puppets animating puppets who aren't actually puppets but are characters in their own right gives this otherwise simple (and touching) children's show some real complexity.

This show is great in all ways, and I think (from what I could find out) there's a feature film that has just been made?

I've embedded only episode 2 for a reason. There is a wonderful moment for all animators (stop motion or otherwise, but it's especially juicy for stop mo people) in the beginning of the episode. Komaneko has her set all made, her puppets are ready, she is lit, the camera is set up... she is poised to record her first frame of animation. And what does she do?

She stops what she's doing, closes her eyes... and imagines.

As a stop motion animator, I like to think she's seeing her first shot in her mind's eye, from first frame to last, feeling all of the movements and visualizing where and what her puppet is going to do. This moment of inner reflection, of breathing deep and bringing the shot-to-be to the front of the mind through visualization is essential to successful stop motion.

Or maybe she's just thinking about catnip, who knows.

This episode goes on to explore many of the headaches/nightmares that are an inherient part of the stop motion. And the joys, too.

I'd recommend anyone who wants to seriously attempt a stop motion film to watch all these episodes. This show is great training!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Cowboy, Indian, and Horse

There's really no one way to define a puppet, nor how it can be used in puppet animation.

You can use very carefully designed and crafted puppets that are super slick (and super expensive), as was the case with The Corpse Bride (for example).

Or you can go in the complete opposite direction, and use pre-fabricated toys that are completely incapable of articulation but, with effort, can still get you wonderful results. And that's the direction Cowboy, Indian, and Horse goes for, big time. I've only linked to one episode on Atom Films site, but there are many more there to enjoy beyond this one.

As the potentially politically incorrect title suggests this show, on its surface, doesn't seem to really care too much about anything. On first glance it's mindless, silly, poorly crafted, and feels as though it was whipped off by 6th graders. That first impression is completely calculated and intentional, of course.

Upon re-viewing, (as it's hard to watch any episode just once because of how much fun they are), there is clearly heaps of attention paid to the project, especially in the realm of timing.

What do you focus on, as an animator, if your puppet is a moulded piece of plastic that is completely incapable of moving any body parts? You focus on timing. Anything that can be animated can be timed for an effective performance. And this show proves it.

The pleasure of watching this show also proves that puppets don't have to cost thousands of dollars or required crews of 20 people to fabricate them. If you don't have talented people animating those puppets, it won't matter how much money and technical wizardry you used to create them, the performances will still be bland and/or lifeless and/or unconvincing.

The puppets in Cowboy, Indian, and Horse prove that careful animation efforts (even if those efforts are to create "bad" animation for the purpose of getting laughs) can make the most unrealistic of puppets "live" as characters. If you know what you are doing as an animator, and have a clear intent and the skill to realize it on the screen, anything can be brought to life and given character.

This show is shot in Belgium (those kooky Belgians, it all started with their waffles), but is produced by Aardman. While giving a talk at the NFB theatre in Toronto recently, Helen Brunsdon (head of short film development at Aardman) told the audience that if a project feels like it could have come from within Aardman, it's worth backing even if it's produced elsewhere. Hats off to Aardman for having the guts to put out a show like Cowboy, Indian, and Horse while at the same time creating their ultra-polished feature film efforts.

Aardman has the maturity at its executive level to recognize that quality animation (and storytelling) has many different looks.

And it has the business savvy to capitalize on that same fact.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


By Jeffrey Paull

My ‘50s teen-aged world was a newly
peacetime world of corporate culture, mass
entertainment, status consciousness, the TV sitcom
with laugh track, the advertisers’ invention of
teen-agers as a separate market, and the end of polio
and the Hollywood studio system.

‘50s culture, at its sanctimonious worst, gave us uniformity, stereotyped symbols of men’s and women’s possible roles, hypo-cracy, consumerism, a false sense of freedom of choice, and a self-satisfied smugness as a nation that dismissed women, other nations and, as we called African Americans back then, Negros.

And if it’s a movie, you can’t use the word
“pregnant”. (!)

I didn’t know that this middle class culture I moved through puberty in was anything other than the way things were meant to be. Like one sun in the sky, that’s all there ever was. This middle-class culture determined how I was supposed to deal with the world, but it didn’t determine how I experienced the world.

No wonder there arrived in our lives, the artists and writers and publishers of MAD magazine. No longer a comic book, MAD spoke to middle class white teen boys by humorously puncturing and deflating the self-important corporate and status-seeking parts of our lives. It gave us a way that we teens could question and mock the pushy, dopey (but catchy) ads, our enchantment with “our own” culture, and the everyday irritations of school, parents, and siblings. It ridiculed what we had no power over, and the goody-goody (sexless) expectations that attempted to quench our God-given hormones.

Only later would we understand that the silences, repressions, and hidden gaps in our lives came about because people were afraid to have ideas that were “different” or sensual. “Different” because they might be accused of being “pinkos”, “fellow travelers”, “dupes”, or Communists. “Sensual” because Americans have always sustained a Puritanical streak, and the anarchic energy of sex would have made hash of the simplistic ‘50s myths. So, of course and anyway, sexuality and sensuality oozed through the slick surfaces of our lives like blood through a bandage.

MAD wasn’t just funny-funny, like I Love Lucy or Jack Benny, it was funny in ways that mattered, that were attached to the powerfully convincing and overweening culture that surrounded us. MAD gave us a version of The Outsider’s point of view, and with its humour, gave us kids a way to talk to each other. It was an early clue to a new direction.

Other early clues to that new direction came from the Beat poets, Bridget Bardot’s naked tush, Elvis’s thrusts & Rock&Roll, '50s stand-up (Lenny Bruce and others) – Playwrite Lillian Hellman, song satirist Tom Lherer (he a Harvard - HARVARD! - mathematician!), Playboy magazine, Bettie Page, tranquillizers, and, eventually, the so-called '60s.

MAD taught us that if you used humour, you could shake off some of the oppressivenes of being a teenager living in a culture that wished to be as simplistic and sexless as an early TV sitcom. Like the local Hamburger Heaven, it was an island of temporary respite in a world that saw teenagers as what they weren’t: paper dolls that advertisers and anxious status-seeking parents wanted us to be.

MAD was a way of laughing and finding community rather than complaining. Which we did at other times.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Hedgehog in the Fog: Characterization

In an earlier entry, I wrote about Barnaby being a special comic strip in part because of its modest, unassuming nature. One of my favourite animated films shares this quality. It's Yuri Norstein's The Hedgehog in the Fog (1975).

Watching this film (or rewatching it) will probably make the follow posting a little more rewarding.

As with any wonderful work of art, there's a number of ways to approach it. But for now (although I might very well return to this film for another posting), I just want to talk about its use of characterization.

Two things happen very quickly in this film, in terms of character. One, we are charmed by the hedgehog. This occurs in part because of the design of the character (he looks like a ball of harmless fluff), but more importantly it occurs because of the how the character is acted. When we first see the hedgehog, he is marching along with great determination. Within a few seconds, in this same shot, he pauses, looks up for a moment, considers the heavens... then continues along on his industrious way. In this tiny bit of animation, (and within seconds of being introduced to this character), the audience has been shown that although he may be well-intentioned, this little creature is easily distracted. He can be swayed from his goal, if only momentarily. He is, quite simply, curious about the world around him. The revealing of these traits implies several things: he has a sense of adventure, he perhaps is inclined to falling into a bit of trouble now and then, and he is fallible, in that he is not capable of driving himself unerringly to whatever he desires (ala Superman, which is why Superman is so boring). This little guy might stumble along the way. He is, if not an underdog, someone we would certainly root for in a conflict. We are on his side. In short, we are charmed.

The other important character consideration that is nailed very quickly grows out of the first. Now that we are charmed by this character, it is much easier for us, if called upon, to willingly align ourselves with him on whatever adventures are about to occur.

This aligning with the hedgehog on our part begins to form something strong as we begin to like him (which happens very quickly), and is further deepened as he is unwittingly stalked by the owl. We can see that the owl is about to get the hedgehog, but the hedgehog has no idea. This puts us in a position of wanting to protect the hedgehog. We want to save him from the threat, but can't. When the threat passes (the owl becomes distracted by its own echo down the well), our desire to protect the hedgehog remains. It doesn't disappear just because the immediate threat of the owl has subsided. The bond between us and the hedgehog has thus been strengthened. What finally and utterly connects us with the hedgehog is the next scene, which finds the camera moving through the bushes in a "hedgehog cam" series of shots. We are literally seeing as if we are the hedgehog. And as we all know from our film studies classes, direct pov shots can dramatically increase the audience's sense of being one with the character whose eyes we are seeing through. This pov technique ends quickly, but its effect remains. We are now deeply connected with the hedgehog. His adventures are our adventures. We share his moments of wonder, of fear, of discovery, of self-doubt, of resignation, and ultimately of contentment.

I think this intense connection between character and audience is partly what makes this film so powerful and magical. Every time the hedgehog discovers the tree, and looks up into its towering branches, I am filled with awe (much as I'm sure our little hedgehog is).

There's much more I could talk about in terms of character in this film, but the last thing I want to point out is the final scene, in which bear and hedgehog are united. Bear happily (and rather dim-wittedly) recites the details of their nightly visits, details we already know about: they will burn juniper branches for the fire, they will sit in their chairs and count the stars. But for hedgehog, something has changed now. He has been through the fog, he has seen the white horse and has wondered about it. He has met bats and owls and snails, and even a hunter's dog. He has seen a giant tree, and his has floated down the river on Someone's back. Hedgehog has changed. He has grown, from his adventures. And this change is made all the more evident by the lack of change that bear exhibits.

What I love about this bit of character development is that the film ends without us knowing what, if any, effect his time in the fog will have on hedgehog. Hedgehog is happy to be back with bear, and he wonders about the horse, and how she is doing in the fog. The world of structure and order has been re-established... but the mystery introduced still remains, and is not only acknowledged but heralded.

Hedgehog can never be the same again, not after seeing the horse. He has changed because he has been touched by the magic in the fog.

And so have we.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


Jeffrey Paull is a life-long student and teacher of images, both
static and moving. His insights will appear on this blog upon
, and we'll all be the wiser for it, I think. The second part
of this piece will be published next Wednesday.

I discovered MAD magazine just about when I got to
jr. high - 7th grade -1952. This article describes a
bit of the culture back then, that made us kids need
MAD Magazine.

MAD magazine didn’t just happen to happen. The artists,
writers, and publisher who transformed it from a comic
book into a magazine of satire and parody had histories
that led them to think in ways they did. Their history
overlaps my history, which is why I didn’t just love MAD
magazine, I, and millions of other kids my age needed
MAD magazine. It was a light at the end of a tunnel, an
umbrella during a miserable rain. It gave as much
pleasure as waking up on Saturday morning thinking
it’s only Friday, and then realizing . . .

But that ‘50s culture was a reaction to the earlier
unstable and unreliable world my parents generation
had lived their lives in.

So my story of MAD magazine begins by going back in
time to the unstable and unreliable world of my parents
to help explain why ‘50s culture was as it was.

My parents grew up in a world that seemed filled with
misery. Their parents escaped to the USA because of
pogroms in Poland and Russia. And on a larger scale . . .

- In 1914-18: WWI caused 20 million people to die.

-In 1918-20: The Spanish flu killed 25 million more
people around the world.

- From 1929-36: The Great Depression: about 27% of
Canadians couldn’t find jobs. There was no social
assistance. Nothing.

- From 1931-33: The Great Drought meant that very
little would grow over vast areas of North America,
and a plague of grasshoppers ate most of what was left.
For a sense of the scale, in Alberta alone 47,000 farmers
are driven off the land. In Saskatchewan, farmers’ income
dropped 72%

- From 1942-46: WWII and the Nazis killed 60 million more

- The Unites States, at war with Japan, dropped two atomic
bombs– “Little Boy” & “Fat Man”- on the cities of Hiroshima
and Nagasaki, killing about 220,000 people, mostly civilians.

On the bright side, women were found to be quite capable of
working “men’s”jobs in factories, Penicillin was developed,
and Preston Sturges’ classy comedies were poking fun at American

Before I was of school age, I remember air raid drills and blackouts
during WWII, andthe neighbourhood air raid warden making sure all our
lights were truly out. Myparents, Aunt Evelyn and my grandmother waited
in the blackness for the “all clear” siren.

The war ended as I went to Grade 1, and my awareness of the world began
to extend beyond our house and my street. All I ever knew was peacetime
prosperity and people who looked forward, and never ever talked about
“back then”. This American optimism, however, hardened into a rigid code
of living that became The (Ugh!) ‘50s!, just as I approached my teenagery.

Dismal combo.

Part 2 will appear next Wednesday.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Royal de Luxe

From my first memories of puppets "coming alive" (probably the hand puppets Casey and Finnegan on CBC Television's Mr. Dress Up, and/or the hand puppets Jerome and Rusty of The Friendly Giant, which also aired on CBC), to my own efforts as a professional stop motion animator, to my teaching of the newly minted stop motion animation class at Sheridan, puppets represent something very complex for me.

I know it has something to do with the powerful and undeniable reality that something lifeless, something we know is nothing more that cloth, metal, clay, or plastic (or any number of other materials, of course), can suddenly come alive (either in a live performance as is the case with hand puppets or marionettes, or with the aid of motion picture apparatus, as is the case with stop motion). Puppets coming alive is as close to real magic as I've known so far.

Having my baby was wonderous, but that's something very natural. A puppet is something very unnatural, which is part of its almost supernatural attraction.

This "power of the puppet" also has something to do with the emotional connection between the audience and the puppet that follows that intense instant when the lifeless becomes living. A performance through a puppet can be as moving as any performed by a living actor on stage or screen. In some ways, I personally feel there's even a greater opportunity for an emotional connection with puppet performances. And I think it's partly because our logical mind knows the puppet is not alive, but our emotional mind wants the puppet to be alive. And as the emotional mind beats down the logical mind (if only for the length of the given performance), our hearts are able to be truly child-like again.

And anything that helps beat down the logical mind is a worthy area to dedicate oneself to.

Royal de Luxe is a French street performance troupe that specializes in the emotional doing battle with the logical, via big puppets. And by big, I mean huge. Recently the troupe, led by Jean Luc Courcoult, mounted a piece called The Sultan's Elephant. It features a very large elephant, and a very large little girl. They have taken the show throughout the world, including London (where the video clips below were shot). I've never had the pleasure of seeing them live. But I hope to, one day.

I think these clips move quite closely to heart of this idea of the emotional mind beating out the logical mind. The design and execution of the puppet performances make no effort to hide the mechanics. In fact, the mechanics are very much an explicit part of the designs and performances.

I find as I watch the clips, I shift constantly between seeing the puppets as living things (an elephant, and a girl), and seeing the puppets as miracles of engineering and mechanics. My logical mind and emotional mind do some pretty serious tussling. And it's an extremely invigorating experience.

I can only imagine the impact, live.

There a many clips online, but I've embedded a few that are very strong. This first one features a mix of the giant girl and the elephant:

While this clip features only the elephant. The video allows the entire puppet to move through the frame, and you can see the entire complexity of the creature:

It only makes sense to give the last word to the magician who is responsible for these wonderful creations. In speaking of one of his earlier show, Courcoult told Jean-Christophe Planche:

"I have seen adults crying as the giant leaves. They have obviously lived other things, sometimes difficult, and yet this makes them cry. I don't believe they are crying because he is leaving but because of the loss of their imagination. Over several days, they have dreamt as adults and now it's finished. Most adults have difficulty dreaming. When you are a grown-up, you weigh things up, you don't dream."
- Le Cahiers du Charnel Number 19 April 2005