John Cawley You Just Don't Understand

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We are o-o-o-o-l-d!
For the proper read of the above title, please reference Cary Grant’s description of Rosalind Russel’s character’s later years in HIS GIRL FRIDAY. If you haven’t seen this cinema classic, then take some time to watch this well-written, well-directed movie in between those “oh-so-well-designed-but-lamely written” animated features in your video library.

Anyway, I don’t think I will shock too many folks here to remind them that they are advancing in age. We often refer to various “old-timers” without realizing we, ourselves, are now falling into that group. Recent comments from folks about the disappearance of classic Warner shorts from Cartoon Network reminded me these fretting folks are now repeating the past.

When I was growing up in the 1950s and 60s, I remember folks stating how music and dj’s had taken over and it was harder and harder to find classic radio shows. Next it was how rock and roll was taking over music and how hard it was to find the big bands. Later, folks bemoaned the fewer and fewer classical music stations. Those around my age simply rolled their eyes at the “old folks” who wanted “that stuff”.

Today, it is all but impossible to find big band music. The few oldies stations are quickly dropping their 50s tunes for the 60s and 70s. Classical music stations are mostly gone except for college Public Radio stations. Even the “older” folks I know don’t really care for classical music.

The same goes with movies and TV. In the 1960s and early 1970s, silent films were a regular staple of schools, film societies and such. Black and white movies were common fodder on local TV. Most major cities had at least one “revival” house, a theater that showed old movies. As movies became more colorful, sexy and violent, again the “old folks” griped about the loss of “good movies”.

Today, it is all but impossible to find many of those “good movies”. Cable has passed them by for more modern “oldies”. Home video can never catch up with the constantly swelling libraries of studios. Only the few that have been established as true “classics”, or those lucky enough to have fallen into public domain are still on view. Animation. Most of those reading this apa grew up in the era of Warner, MGM, Fleischer and other shorts on daily TV. The younger in this group probably watched the first golden age of TV animation via Yogi Bear, THE FLINTSTONES, ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE and such. But you know what? New generations are simply rolling their eyes when us “old folks” mention such titles.

When Jim Korkis and I sold animation collectibles, many animation buffs scoffed at our offering Scooby Doo items. However, Jim and I knew, that in the 1990s, there was a generation that had grown up with Scooby. They loved those characters as much as the older (and self-proclaimed “wiser”) animation buffs loved Bugs, Betty and Bullwinkle. Today’s audience has a whole different idea of what “classic” means. My wife is almost two decades my junior. When she talks of great, animated features, she thinks of WATERSHIP DOWN, THE LAST UNICORN and MY LITTLE MERMAID. Her favorite animated series are, GARGOYLES, MY LITTLE PONY, SCOOBY and THUNDERCATS. She is not alone. (Look at how DC comics keep bringing THUNDERCATS back to life.)

Yes, she has seen the classic Disney features and Warners shorts. She even likes some of them. But for her, those have the same meaning and memory that I have for silent movies, big band music and old-time radio. They are things from the past. Yes, I may enjoy them, but they are not of my generation. (It sort of reminds me of the day we hired Craig Kellman. Someone mentioned referencing an idea from STAR WARS. Craig responded, “Oh, yes. I’ve seen that video.”)

Every day at the studio, the current creators, talents and executives remind me of this. They talk of REN AND STIMPY and anime the way Film Roman folks of the 1980s talked of ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE and STAR TREK. They have little memory and sometimes almost no recollection of Heckle and Jeckle, Humphrey Bogart, the Marx Brothers, Bob Clampett, ANIMAL HOUSE, Mel Brooks, Top Cat, THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, Bob Hope, Woody Allen, Astroboy, George Pal, PSYCHO, Abbott & Costello, Felix the Cat and CITIZEN KANE. In fact, they consider those who do remember these icons as “old timers”.

But there is a bright side! Just think. In 20 years Scooby Doo and Speed Racer will be as dim a memory in the creators of animation as Betty Boop and Felix are in today’s talent. Instead, this new generation will fondly recall the ‘good old days’ of Spongebob and Shrek.

Over the weekend I watched the “extra” disc from Disney’s most recent DVD release of MULAN. Once again I was aggravated by the amount of “publicity” that ends up in such commentaries and histories. Who needs thought police when you can re-write history almost subliminally via extra features on DVDs?

It seems like I’m always harping on the reporting of animation news and history. Guess it is my journalistic background. If it makes any difference, I get as irritated at political reporting. A commentator on NPR recently compared sports reporting to political reporting and how one has slipped. His example being that if a politician were to state the world is flat, no reporter would correct the politician for fear of losing access to the politico and possibly appear to be “pro or con” the official. Instead, the reporter would find another politician to state the world is round, thus giving balanced coverage. The speaker then stated in sports reporting, the world “alleged” is seldom heard, and should a speaker mis-speak a record or fact, the sports reporter would quickly move to correct the speaker.

Animation reporting has returned to the dark days of information. Up through the 1970s, studios and creators could say anything they want and it would be reported as fact. If Walt Disney said SNOW WHITE was the first animated feature, then it was. If someone claimed to be the true creator of a character, it was reported. Where would a writer find any other information? As the 70s ended, more and more research was being done. Suddenly, a claim could be looked at for accuracy. Today, few writers will state the emperor has no clothes. Worse, the expanding media outlets from the internet to these ‘closed’ interviews on dvds gives parties the ability to make any statement as if it were fact.

On the MULAN disc, we get to hear Pam Coats discuss how essential she was to the process of production. We get to see only what Disney wants to show about the production. Oddly, Pam was recently “fired” (as one website put it) from Disney. I met Pam at the Hollywood press screening of SPIRITED AWAY. I talked to her briefly. She was full of info on the upcoming Pixar films. She was excited about the release of FINDING NEMO, mentioning talent involved, the release date and more. Unfortunately, she couldn’t remember when HOME ON THE RANGE was to be released. She also had little info on TREASURE PLANET or LILO AND STITCH. It was obvious she had become a spokesperson for Pixar’s cgi revolution and no longer had any interest or info on hand animation. She gave quite a different presentation on the MULAN dvd… and probably had the most screen time due to the fact that just about everyone else on the film had since been fired thanks to her tireless effort to under-promote hand-animation.

Similarly, I have heard various folks discussing the new REN AND STIMPY dvd set. I will not buy, nor even rent this. I have never been that big a fan of the series. My disinterest only grows when I hear folks reporting about the commentaries and stories being told on the disc by Krisfalusi. * sigh * From the quotes showing up on the web, we are in for another round of his faulty memory on how the series was created. We also get to hear his tirade about “why” he got kicked off of the series.

Whenever I hear his glorified side of the battle, it reminds me of the more accurate accounts discussed at the time by all parties. (However, like a good politician, Krisfalusi soon found the best story to get publicity and promote his career.) Sadly, one of the elements of the final court decision between Krisfalusi and Nickelodeon was that neither could discuss in public the circumstances around his firing. For a while, both parties stuck to this. However, as mentioned, Krisfalusi now makes telling his side part of his stumping campaign. Nickelodeon, still hoping everything will go away, and not wanting to garner any more fan wrath (or legal costs), simply looks away like a parent ignoring the temper tantrum their child is throwing.

Styles Apart
Writing style and cinema style are definitely two different animals. The most successful transitions from book to screen are usually those in which the book has a strong story and a clean style. This allows the filmmakers to tell the story in a cinematic way. However there is many a writer who has a style so strong, that it really does not convert to a cinema style. James Thurber, considered one of the great humor writers of the 21st century, was never successfully transferred to film (the closest being UPA’s wonderful THE UNICORN IN THE GARDEN). More modern writers such as Stephen King and Hunter S. Thompson have similarly been less than successful when brought to the screen. These are writers whose stories are not necessarily important (Thurber), original (King), nor even coherent (Thompson). But, like a professional comic, they know how to sell the material through timing [i.e. writing].

This thought came upon me during the recent screening of SHARK TALE. (No, Dreamworks most recent entry is not based on classic fiction.) In front of the feature was a trailer for LEMONY SNICKET, a Jim Carrey film based on the series of popular children’s books. I have read a few of the books. They are amusing, but not astounding. What has made them popular is the writing style. A narrator uses an opinionated, melodramatic tone to describe the various events. In fact, the author must have been a fan of Rocky and Bullwinkle. When I read the books, I kept picturing William Conrad breathlessly racing along, trying to capture all the minutiae, all the evil deeds, and all the surprises. I cannot imagine a live action film capturing such a story-telling style. Yes, they will have macabre sets, over the top effects and lots of “crazy” characters. But they will not have the author’s voice.

Lack of Vision
I fully agree that there are too many folks in animation who cannot tell what they are looking at when they read a script or storyboard or even view an animatic. However, I would not limit that to execs and producers. I have worked on enough features and series to know such lack of vision is not exclusive to the upper echelons. Many a “creator” with years of experience doing boards, direction and other animated tasks seems unable to realize that a 24-page script is too long to create a 7-minute film. (I remember one, who when faced with a 10-minute dialog track for a 7-minute short, stated that with proper direction all the dialogue could be saved!) Then there is the creator who discovers in the animatic that story “isn’t working” and the entire segment will need re-writing and re-boarding. At such points studio execs start asking me “shouldn’t he have seen that in the script?” Of course, Don Bluth, when confronted with story issues, would just state he would “fix it in animation.” On one series, the creator was frequently calling for massive re-takes at the work print stage. He could always justify his needs by showing how poor the story was, how bad the staging was, and how the timing did not work. Again, I would be asked why the story wasn’t fixed in script, the staging fixed in board and the timing fixed in animatic/direction. My general comment is that some folks are what I call ‘post producers’. These “post producers” just can’t see anything until it is complete and in front of them. As time has gone on, I find this is a growing problem among artists who have been trained in one area, or by doing their own shorts. They don’t see the big picture of how animation is created or produced.


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