John Cawley You Just Don't Understand

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War of the Words
One of my favorite thoughts of recent times came from David DePatie. While interviewing him, he mentioned they were thinking of doing the animated titles for the new Pink Panther feature “in 3D”. He then paused and told me it was really not 3-D, because you did not need glasses. “They mean CGI”, he explained.

It reminded me of how important words are. Politicians realize it. Why do you think they are so careful naming bills and battles? Marketing people realize it. Why are films that fill your old-fashioned TV screen “full” frame or “family friendly”? If only “average” folks knew how important their choice of words and titles were. For example, my wife and I raise and show Great Danes. Most of our kids have natural ears. This means they lie flat (like a Basset Hound) instead of pointing up (like a German Shepherd). The pointed ears are called “cropped”. The old guard prefers cropped ears. However, in the last few years, more and more folks are leaving them natural. It has become quite a debate. I tell my wife the chance of natural gaining ground will be better if one looks at the language being used. Everyone seems to think “natural” is a good word. The concept for “cropped”, however, is vague in many folks mind. After all, what is cropping? I now use the word “cut”. (To crop a dog’s ear, as much as 50% of the ear is cut off.) When folks hear me refer to either natural or cut ears, almost everyone prefers a dog with natural ears. Many ask, “Why would you want to cut a dog’s ears?” A recent dog magazine, attempting to sway opinion, used the same logic when they referred to dog’s ears as either being “natural” (again, a friendly word) or “surgically altered”.

What has this to do with animation? If animators are more careful with picking their terms, they might do better in the battle. Example? If 2D is good animation, using the famous volume dial gag, 3D must be better. Why is it call called 3D animation? As DePatie said, it is not 3D, as the term would be used in live action films. That would mean STAR WARS was 2D. TITANIC was 2D. Few would say those films are worse than HOUSE OF WAX.

Take another approach. Drop the old words like “traditional” (who wants to follow tradition) or “classical” (sounds like music your parents would listen to). Instead, go on the attack. Would the public rather have a hand made meal, or a meal made by computer? How about a piece of art or music? What if we refer to films like HOME ON THE RANGE and BROTHER BEAR as “made by hand” or “made by artists”? What if films like TOY STORY and SHREK are said to be “made by computer” or “computerized animation”. Remember “computerized color”?

Would cgi folks be pissed? Probably. But so will those who still think the only way to have a good-looking dog is to cut off half their ears, or chop off their tail. But, I can tell you; the days of cropping and docking are beginning to come to an end. Many countries no longer allow the procedures, dubbing them “cruel and unnecessary”. If those who prefer the pencil to the pixel could gather the right terms, you might find the public desiring the creative freedom and artistic passion found in films made by artists with their hands. The studios are doing lots of publicity to show the “art” and “care” that go into a cgi movie. But artists can strike back and show how computers are limited by their memory and technology. (Ask anyone who has a computer at home.) An artist is unlimited by any technology. And hey, when was the last time you had to debug an animator. Actually, humans do get viruses…

“Expert is merely man who make quick decision - and is sometimes right.” - Charlie Chan in THE CHINESE CAT
In days of old, experts were generally book authors, college professors or professionals in the area of discussion. Today, they are webmasters. Which, in some cases is a big step backwards. This is not to say that there are no experts on the web. In fact, there are a number of websites run by folks who are experts in their topic. Two that come off the top of my head are Mark Evanier and Scott Shaw’s Oddball Comics. (I read each regularly.) Both of these guys have plenty of experience and knowledge. They would fit anyone’s description of “expert”. However, I find more and more webmasters are really “editors” at best, or “hubs” at the least. That is to say the webmaster is not really an expert on the topic of their site. Instead, they are lucky enough to have time to surf the web to locate sites of interest to their readers. Some are even more fortunate and have friends who send such links to the webmaster. I cringe every time someone quotes a webmaster as an expert on topic A, and it is obvious that the webmaster is not well versed in the topic. Not that an expert will know everything, but it is usually clear when someone is a warehouse of knowledgeable as opposed to a filing cabinet.
I would have had a hit animated feature…
if it weren’t for you meddling kids and that marketing department!

Folks in and out of the Disney organization are now claiming that the studio and marketing department deliberately downplayed HOME ON THE RANGE. The conspiracy theory folks surmise that the film was let to dangle so that Burbank’s return to cgi features with CHICKEN LITTLE would be a blockbuster compared to the “old” hand crafted features like HOME.

This is a tough issue to take a side on. I generally don’t buy conspiracy theories. I mean, Disney is in such financial trouble that you think they would be pushing anything and everything in the hopes that it appears they can still generate a hit.

However, I do know that studios have played fast and loose with films to assist the majors. Recently Warner Bros. moved SCOOBY DOO 2 from Summer to Spring. The reason? They did not want Scooby taking any money from their new Harry Potter film. Back in 1977, Disney pulled THE RESCUERS from theaters early. The reason? The film had gotten strong reviews and was doing big business. PETE’S DRAGON was coming out in the Fall, and the studio had planned DRAGON to be the big feature for 1977. As it turned out, RESCUERS became the top grossing Disney animated feature (a title it held until THE LITTLE MERMAID), while PETE’S DRAGON disappeared quickly.

Then again, the cries of “poor marketing” have been the mantra for those whose pet projects have done poorly. You heard it for IRON GIANT. You heard it for Disney features since THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE. I even heard it for THE POWER PUFF GIRLS MOVIE. It seemed everyone wanted to blame the messenger, not the movie.

Point of fact; even great movies may not be profitable. All sorts of Hollywood legend talks of films that did poorly (WIZARD OF OZ, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE), yet later became heralded as classics. Why did the films fail on first release? Were they ahead of their times? Behind their times? Poor publicity? Poor stars? Who knows? For every film that surprisingly bombed, one surprisingly became a major hit.

Having had to sell projects, and pitch films, I know that some ideas were just hard sells. PLAGUE DOGS was too gloomy to find a U.S. distributor. TWICE UPON A TIME was too unconventional. As Sondheim wrote, “you’ve gotta have a gimmick.” And as Billy Flynn noted, the press can only handle one idea at a time. It seemed successful films were those that could be described in a few short words so that its core audience would find it.

Another possibility is, sometimes the film’s audience doesn’t exist. Most classic film successes are films that are basic emotions and ideas. Love. Revenge. Fear. The Disneys, Clampetts and Tezukas had come from average backgrounds, so understood average interests and tastes. Today’s filmmakers have come from a media background and relish producing films that borrow elements, phrases and such from previous films and pop culture.

Even though lots of folks want to do these little personal films about stories they love, they have to realize that today’s animated feature budgets don’t allow such whims. An animated movie making $50-75 million is no longer a hit. Most features couldn’t even be made for that money. For every ED WOOD that Burton does, he needs to do a BATMAN. When you have tales of boys with robots, cows on farms or even TV characters, there has to be a strong reason for folks to want to see the movie. No amount of promotion can create the interest to overcome poor or bland or cliché concept. But, if the premise is strong, and promotion can hook that idea to the public, you have a chance at a hit. Bottom line, good promotion can help a film, but the film has to pitch in too.

Reviewing Family Films
Though I scan lots of reviews, I am not a fan of reviews for “family” films. It goes back to my days when I was working for the Disney Archives. We would get reviews from around the globe. Whenever a new live action family film (ala The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Herbie to Witch Mountain) would come out, the reviews would almost say the same thing: Writing stinks; directing stinks, acting stinks, movie stinks, but kids will like it.

Joe Besser, a grand golden age comedian (probably best known as one of the Three Stooges) had a great reply. He stated kids were the best audience because they were honest. “A kid won’t lie to you”, he would say to us, “he’ll tell you if your act stinks.” Exactly. However, in this grand tradition of assuming “kids like anything” (I thought that was supposed to be Mikey), the reviews on Disney’s latest effort, HOME ON THE RANGE were full of similar comments. Seems no matter what the reviewer thought of the movie, it was good enough to shove the kids in front of.

Several complained that the plot of the film, trying to save the farm, was so common and trite it showed that Disney’s creativity had hit bottom. Though I might agree in the sentiment, I can’t in the criticism. For example, is the idea of a father and son separated and trying to unite fresh? (Hellooooo AN AMERICAN TAIL) It was as if they were trying to find reasons that Disney was “out” and Pixar was “in”. My favorite was probably from The Hollywood Reporter. It had the lame statement, “[HOME ON THE RANGE’s] humor generally lacks the manic hilarity of the Pixar efforts.” “Manic hilarity” of Pixar films?

Are Pixar films funny? They can be. Are they filled with “manic hilarity”? Uh, no. At least the Reporter redeemed itself with an observation from the audience. “It [HOME ON THE RANGE] may also suffer from the competition, judging by the plaintive cry ‘When is it going to be Scooby-Doo?’ heard from one tyke during the screening.”

See, even kids don’t like everything.

Some Doo… and Some Do’h!-n’t
A popular statement is that there are two types of people: Those who think the Three Stooges are funny, and those that don’t. I think the same comparison might apply itself to Scooby Doo and The Simpsons.

I will admit it. I like Scooby-Doo. I did not “grow up” with him, but as the years went by, I found a pleasant amusement in the property. I even enjoyed both of the live action films, and feel that they are probably the best of any attempts to bring animated characters to live action.

What I found interesting was how many reviews of the latest film seemed more interested in debating the character than reviewing the movie. It even started a string of comment pieces where folks try to explain the popularity of the character. Randall Cyrenne of DVD Toons put it best. “The chemistry between the characters makes the show, just as it does in any conventional sitcom. There is something appealing about seeing such different people hanging out together and enjoying each other’s company. Sometimes, you just cannot beat chemistry. Scooby and the gang have it, and for that reason I can still watch the show and get a chuckle out of it.”

I guess it is that simple. Scooby is the “simple sitcom” of the animated world. Froth like GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, GREEN ACRES and THREE’S COMPANY keep on going with little regard to reality, attempts at invention, or regard to critics who complain the shows diminish the art form. Similarly, Scooby and his gang will keep unmasking the ghosts, or defeating the real ones. It’s not art… but it’s fun.

Whereas the debate on Scooby is international, the debate on the Simpsons is more limited. It deals with folks who work in animation. There are those who think it is the funniest, freshest thing on TV and those who think it is poorly drawn, poorly animated and flatly written. (The arguments are almost the same for Scooby in the general public.)

I have never been a cheerleader for the Simpsons. When it debuted, I thought it was a pretty rough production, with fair writing. At that time, MARRIED WITH CHILDREN had much stronger writing. By season two, the Simpsons began looking slicker and had stronger writing. However, I still found the series to be a better idea than a great show. (Stunt programming against the megahit THE COSBY SHOW helped cement the series in the public’s mind.)

This is not to say that I don’t ever laugh at the show. After gazillions of episodes, it has been able to do some very funny stuff. However, it also has done a lot of not funny stuff.

It boils down to why we like classic characters. Not every Bugs Bunny short is funny, or well done. However, folks like Bugs Bunny. With Scooby and the Simpsons, it just depends on whom you like as a person. For me, I’ll go with teens and a talking dog over a family acting stupid. I respect those who enjoy the yellow family, and will let them have the right to choose their humor, without belittling their intelligence or taste. I just wish the anti-Scooby folks would give me the same right.

The Pink Panther, David DePatie and Me
I was recently contacted by Animation World Network to write an article on The Pink Panther in connection with the DVD release of several features and four Pink Panther theatrical shorts. The article was to be based upon an interview with David DePatie, surviving partner of DePatie-Freleng.

I really enjoyed chatting with DePatie. He is truly a gentleman. Officially given 15 minutes, he immediately said we could talk until we “were done.” That was well over 45 minutes. Not only was he honest when answering some tricky questions, he never had harsh words for folks involved with his projects, and was certainly free with praise for those he thought deserved it. If anyone reading this has any sway with the Annie Awards, and if DePatie has not been honored yet, he SHOULD be. Here is a guy who re-started theatrical shorts when everyone else said they were dead. Here is a guy who was an early advocate of creators’ rights. He certainly deserves some note for such feats.

The final piece, with lots of historical info and quotes ended up being around 3200 words. AWN wanted 1500 words. After lots of cutting I submitted two versions, one at 2000 words and one at 1600 words. I was going to run the whole piece here, until I read AWN’s writer’s agreement. I’ll wait a bit for most of the parties to die, and then I can run it. I’ll probably also take credit for creating Bugs Bunny by that time.

One thing I see animation dinosaurs get riled up over is when a character gets “changed”. This does not mean a big makeover of a character from humor to seriousness. (See below for that.) I’m talking about when somebody decides to design a new look, or slightly shift the personality.

For the Pink Panther’s 40th birthday, a new designer was hired to give his “spin” to the character. The Panther now has an “art deco” look to him. Several folks have come out to criticize the move. Do I like it? Well, “it’s not your father’s” panther. But it is not the end of the world. (Heck, in another five years it will probably be redesigned again.) To me, the shorts where the Panther talked are much more of an abomination.

I wonder what these kings of consistency would have done decades ago? Would they have complained to Chuck Jones when he turned Daffy from daffy to greedy? How many would boycott Woody cartoons after Mel Blanc stopped doing the voice? Maybe they would refuse to call MGM’s cat Tom and insist his name remain Jasper. Would they have threatened the Disney board of directors when Goofy went from Goofy to “everyman” in the “how to” shorts? I even wonder if their writings would have been full of anger when the Panther was converted from a four legs in the titles to a two legs for the shorts? Or when Richard Williams redesigned him?

Things change as years go by. I will not debate here which, if any, are good. Sometimes, a change is refreshing. I like the Shemp and Besser Stooge shorts because they brought a new life and dimension to the team. The Bond films after Guy Hamiton are lighter in tone, which some credit for the series’ success. As time goes by I even find my opinions shifting on some issues, such as who is the better Charlie Chan. I don’t think change, even in opinions, is necessarily wrong. Nor does it show inconsistency, as some political critics will claim.

Change happens. One is not able to stop it. The best one can hope for is guiding it. Rather than griping about the old, maybe these radio talk show host wannabes could try focusing on the present and future. Now that would be a change for the better.

Voicing An Opinion on Voices
At this time, (April 5th) there are some news reports about the voices of THE SIMPSON’S being “on strike”. My initial business response: “Re-Cast the show.” (Bob Miller, a very funny guy, suggested Robin Williams be brought in to replace Castellaneta!) My reasoning: Tigger. For those who may recall, Disney decided to not use Paul Winchell for the voice of Tigger on one of their recent productions. Paul Winchell was the original voice for Tigger. He helped create the style and delivery. (True, it was a variation of his Knucklehead Smith persona.) He was the voice of Tigger for over three decades. A well respected ventriloquist, performer, inventor (of a mechanical heart), innovator and generally an entertainment VIP; Winchell was a very big wheel. At that time, there were a handful of articles about “mean ol’ Disney” and how Paul was “dumped” for being “too old”. And what was the result of the press? Winchell was replaced. The new Pooh film came out, and more Pooh films were pushed into the pipeline.

If Paul Winchell can be dropped and forgotten, who will remember a Dan Castellaneta or Nancy Cartright? And, after over a dozen years (gag), even the audience won’t be surprised by a change in casting. Especially a cast they can’t “see”. Anyone remember the furor when the original voice of Judy Jetson was dropped from the feature in lieu of a pop singing star’s voice?

Of more interest to me is the fact that it is not just the key four actors, but also the other main voices. In one sense this makes a bigger argument - if one goes we all go. On the other hand, it makes it easier to dump all. If just the main four were to go, any new voices would be treated with contempt by the remaining cast. However, in this case, there would really be NO remaining cast. How convenient for Fox!

JUST IN…5/3/04: Word has come that Fox will fork over more money for the voice talent. Not too surprising. It will be more surprising if Fox increases the budget for the series to cover the increases. More than likely, they will need to cut time/money out of production. In fact, a report out today (5/4) has a Fox exec stating that the late start will not delay new episodes airing. The exec felt production would be able to catch up.

Not with a Boom but an Error?
One statement that drives me nuts is when folks mention ROGER RABBIT as a starting point for the animated feature boom of the 1990s. I, personally, do not consider ROGER RABBIT an animated feature. It is not descended from animated features like SNOW WHITE or PETER PAN or 101 DALMATIANS. It is a branch born of KING KONG, Harryhausen’s 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD and PETE’S DRAGON. For this reason, I don’t see it as a direct connection. As my doctor would say, “the dog barked and it started to rain”: Two facts that don’t really have a connection. I would certainly say ROGER inspired such films as SPACE JAM and SCOOBY-DOO.

If you were looking for an animated feature as a starting point for the boom, I could make good arguments for SECRET OF NIMH, THE CARE BEARS MOVIE, AN AMERICAN TAIL or THE LION KING. (It depends on when you want the boom to start, and what kind of boom you refer to.) The publicity about Don’s exit and start of his new studio and direction inspired several studios to take some risks with features. Next came the CARE BEARS that showed “modestly” budgeted films could succeed. Several studios followed in similar steps. It was TAIL’s huge box-office success that finally knocked Disney from being king of the hill. It also began the rivalry between Spielberg and Disney, which led to escalating costs. (As any collectibles expert will tell you, it only takes two idiots to make an auction.) Finally, it was LION KING’s leap into box office history that made animated features look “hot” and, again, got studios going on big budget films, with high priced talent. (I give a bigger argument for one of these later.)

The bottom line is that from around the mid-1980s animation feature and TV production began to become very steady. Many folks worked regularly from the mid-1980s until the late 1990s. Not bad considering the 70s and early 80s saw folks work a few months, then be laid off a few months, then re-hired, then laid off again.

Who needs artists?
“The personalities that the audience identifies with for each of these characters don't come from the drawings but from the personalities of the characters, which are provided by the actors.”
- John Kelly (Yeardly Smith’s aka Lisa Simpson’s agent)
“From the start, words were more important than pictures.”
- Mike Lazzo
“It’s all about story”
- Don Bluth
“You may write the greatest thing in the world and if it is badly timed, badly animated, if the live actors' performances are not good, they can do you in.”
- Bill Scott
“We are often creating visual worlds, as well as characters, that no one has ever seen, photographed, imagined. It is no longer just adding a "Whoops!" or "Oomph!" to a series of visual gags created by a cartoonist. We often create, write and direct on the page.”
- WGA brochure
Sir Peter
One of the great voices of animation passed away recently. I am referring to Peter Ustinov. As is typical, few of his obituaries mentioned his work in animation. Those that did simply mentioned his work as Prince John in Disney’s animal version of ROBIN HOOD.

His work in ROBIN HOOD is certainly wonderful. But beyond the Disney venture, Ustinov did voice work in other features. He appeared in or narrated such fare as THE KING AND MR. BIRD, WINDS OF CHANGE (aka METAMORPHOSIS), THE MOUSE AND HIS CHILD, and GRENDEL GRENDEL GRENDEL. All were made more entertaining, and eloquent through his voice.

On TV, he was the original U.S. voice for DR. SNUGGLES. This odd, some might say “whimsical”, European series showcased Ustinov’s vocal skills. He not only voiced the Doctor, but as “narrator” he vocalized the other characters. Much like Jack Mercer’s Popeye, Ustinov’s Snuggles made the most of vocal asides. Sadly, when the series was released on videotape in the U.S., Ustinov’s voice had been replaced.

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