Wednesday, May 26, 2010

7 Lessons from David Brown - Part 1 of 4

As a long time fan of producer David Brown's films “The Player,” “Jaws” and “A Few Good Men,” I was happy to read his “Lessons From a Life in Showbiz” in Variety magazine. I've had this clipping over my drawing board for 6 years now.
Since he recently died at age 93, I feel its appropriate to pass on these pearls of wisdom. I myself have only been in showbiz 25 years, a small fraction compared to David Brown, yet I agree 100% with all of his lessons.
There are 28 lessons all together, but that's too many to digest in one blog so I've broken them up into 4 parts, thus:

7 Lessons From David Brown, part 1 of 4
1.An exec who is unwilling to put his job on the line for a project he believes in should lose his job.
2.One person's vision, right or wrong, is worth more than a consensus of 12. Trust passion.
3.Relying on other's opinions is a lazy and disastrous practice. Darryl F. Zanuck ordered readers' opinions to be removed from synopses. Barry Diller, while at Paramount, read full material – books, plays or scripts – before deciding to proceed with production.
4.Satisfying work is never a substitute for living or loving, and yet without it life is barren.
5.Applause at the dailies is no guarantee of the success of a film but a better indication than no applause.
6.Where is it written that an over-50 director with many films to his credit is not preferable to an under-30 director with only a festival award in his resume? Same for writers.
7.Casting in payment for sex is a bad idea. It's been tried by some of the greats of the business and found to lead to poor performance on the screen and in bed.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Blue Sky

I've always been a big fan of Blue Sky Studios, from their blockbuster franchise “Ice Age” films to “Robots” and “Horton Hears a Who.” Plus I have a lot of friends working up there – Karen Disher, Bob Camp, Chris Wedge, Vincent Nguyen, Carlos Saldana, and Peter de Seve.

So I always like to find out what they've been working on. A few months ago Chris Wedge, their esteemed founder and producer, invited me to come up and do a masterclass on animation. It seemed like a weird request because they do great CGI animation and rake in billions of dollars, while I do pencil on paper and rake in hundreds of dollars. But be that as it may it would be a great opportunity to see their new digs in Connecticut (they wanted to escape NY taxes) and reconnect with all my friends.

So last week I took a limo (thanks to Fox Studios) up to their beautiful rolling estate studios and did a couple of masterclasses. In between I went to lunch in Chris's '63 VW bug. “Gee,” I thought, “being a head of a multibillion dollar studio would give him a touch of luxury.” We were joined for lunch by old friend Piet Kroon (“Osmosis Jones”) and Bob Camp (“Ren and Stimpy”). Then Chris did a wonderful introduction to my second show where he related the long ago story of our visit to a festival in Majorca, Spain, where he was attacked by a fleet of jellyfish and as he writhed on to the shore in massive pain I offered to pee on him to relieve the pain.

Afterwards I got a sneak peak at the trailer for “Rio,” their new feature film. Of course, I had to sign a non disclosure agreement on entry – but since the trailer is already playing in cinemas I should be safe from lawsuits. In any case, the film looks fabulous, rich, funny and colorful. It will be released sometime early next year.

Thanks to all my friends at Blue Sky for a great day – Chris, Christian, Nick, and Peter.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Shrek Forever After

I've just returned from a preview screening of the new and supposedly last of the Shrek films, “Shrek, Forever After.” The audience, which was full of kids, thoroughly enjoyed the film. I, however, had serious problems.

Even though the story was quite charming and magical (it was similar to “Its A Wonderful Life”) I felt the artwork was quite ugly. Perhaps they wanted to keep the same style and design of the 1st installment, so the artists used the same crude models. Or perhaps Jeffrey Katzenberg needed to save a few bucks to give a bright stockholder's report. I don't know why. But after being impressed by the superb design in “How to Train Your Dragon,” how could the same studio make such an amateurish production like this? The characters were stiff, the fabric looked plastic. The colors all wrong. In fact, Shrek was not green. And there was no squash and stretch. It was like the whole production was made in some 2nd rate CG studio in India. Certainly the story and some of the humor worked, and the audience gave it a nice ovation at the end. But please, Jeffrey, have some good character design! Even the antagonist in the film, Rumpelstiltskin, was terribly designed, and he's the character you can really have fun with. The potential for humor design was huge and they blew it.

I must say that the 3D worked very well and the action scenes were exciting. The music bits were fun especially The Carpenters song, “Top of the World,” as Shrek goes back to being and evil ogre. One little bit of trivia: the pied piper is brought in near the end and the flute music is performed by Jeremy Steig, the son of Shrek's creator, William Steig.

On the Plympton scale I give it 5 out of 10.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Four Pages... and a premiere...

In my opinion, these four pages of notes by Glen Keane are the most important guide for any animator interested in capturing the weight, volume and force of life in their work. I have these pages taped above my desk in order to constantly remind me, and they have been vital while animating my most recent film. I don't pretend to be abel to capture the energy that glen does, but one can only keep trying!

A minor plug: My latest short animated film "Masks" world premiere is June 18th here in New York, at 92y Tribeca. Please try to make it. I'll be posting more information about the event soon, but you can read more or buy tickets at the 92y Tribeca site.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

How to Train Your Dragon

As you know I'm a big fan of Pixar films. It seems like every film they make is a gem, while Dreamworks makes visually boring, pandering derivative features like “Shrek” and “Shark Tale.” Then along comes a film like “How to Train Your Dragon.” I for some reason delayed going to the film. Probably because the reviews I read were fair to good and the title sounded like a kiddy pic.

Then the head of Blue Sky, the wonderful Chris Wedge, said I had to go see the film. So I looked in the papers and it was gone from the city. If I wanted to drive to Long Island maybe I could see it. Then I was invited to the Plastic Paper Festival in Winnipeg, Canada where it was playing at a 3D cinema for it's last week before giving way to Iron Man 2. So I raced over there to see the film. WOW!!! What a masterpiece! It had everything: great design, great 3D action sequences, wonderful story, super humor. I was enraptured from beginning to end. This is what animation should be!

I'd always felt that Jeffrey Katzenberg was the genius behind the whole Disney animation resurgence in the 80's and 90's; the wonderful “Kung Fu Panda” by Mark Osborne and John Stevenson showed that Dreamworks was making quality films. But in this new film by Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois they really blew away Pixar films. I know it's probably too late to see the film in 3D in your local cinema, but if you have one close-by – please please go see “How to Train Your Dragon.”

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Winsor McCay House

Ever since I was a young animation fan and I saw Gertie the Dinosaur on TV, I've been a big fan of Winsor McCay. Over the years, I'd marvel at the great imagery and draftsmanship of that turn of the century genius.
I felt a certain kinship to him for a number of reasons. 1. He began his career as a print cartoonist, like myself. 2. He made every drawing in his film by himself, like myself, and 3. He used surrealism as a source of humor. Also like myself. So when I read that one of his early homes out in Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn was close to being torn down, I rushed out there to see it myself. I was joined by 2 French animation fans, Xavier and Lucie, and took the subway out near Coney Island.
One problem was the address I received was wrong. The number in print was 1181 Voorhies Ave. And after seeing that there was no such address, we showed the picture of the house to a local resident and he pointed up the street 4 blocks to 1811 Voorhies Ave.
What a dump. Unfortunately the 3 storied mansion has long been abandoned so it now houses 8 families of hispanic descent. And as we entered the front door the spanish families hurriedly scattered to their respective apartments in fear. Apparently the famed animator's home is now a multifamily squatters shelter.
But you can imagine the glory that it once was back in the early 1900's. All the architectural details are still there and with a lot of work it can be restored to its former glory. But the neighborhood is changing. What used to be a nice, quiet, residential area is a bustling commercial zone with liquor stores and great chain drug stores.
As much as I hate to say this, it would be very difficult to turn it into a museum simply because it so far from Manhattan (about 1 hour). But if they could get a historic landmark designation that would be fantastic.
I created some sketches of the house when I visited, and also here's some photos. If you're out in the Coney Island area, definitely check it out. The address is 1811 Voorhies Ave, Sheepshead Bay.


Laurence Asseraf has been curating short films for a number of years. She began the Tribeca Underground Festival 6 years ago until Robert De Niro, feeling the pressure, used his lawyers to force her to change the name. Mr. De Niro is nominal head of the Tribeca Film Festival; now a juggernaut of a festival. Why they are afraid of little Laurence Asseraf is beyond me – it's the whole “Bambi meets Godzilla” scenario. So she was forced to change the name to the BeFilm Underground Festival.

I go to a lot of festivals with my short films and uniformly I'm ignored or shunted to the margin and left to beg for any kind of publicity or distribution. That's why its so refreshing to have a festival like the BeFilm Festival, which celebrates short film, both live action and animation. Her and her festival partner, Dmitri, are able to attract great audiences for little jewels of films.

I'm always pissed off when people say that its impossible to make money on short films. Its a cliché that shorts are only to get 3 picture deals in Hollywood. No way! Short films are a great art form. You can say beautiful, powerful, meaningful stories with short films. And besides that, I make most my money on my shorts. I love short film as an art form and as a money maker. So its so wonderful that there's a BeFilm Underground Festival to spotlight short films from around the world.