Monday
Jan212013

Walt and the Hyperion Days

Okay, I can't tell you much about this photograph except to say it was taken during the Disney Hyperion days back in the thirties. Clearly, things were going well for Walt as he shows off his snazzy new vehicle. I love going through this stash of old photographs because it provides insight into a studio I never really knew.

I remember walking through stage three on the Walt Disney studio lot some years ago. The art directors and set designers had constructed a movie set that seems to have been inspired by Walt Disney's Silverlake production facility. I honestly had no idea if the set designers followed the Hyperion studio plans or if they even had acess to that material. What they did come up with was an environment that felt very much like Walt's 1930's studio and it truly resonated with me because it almost felt like a trip back in time. Had I looked out of the window I was convinced I'd see 1930's Silverlake with all the old vehicles driving up and down Hyperion Boulevard.

I've often wondered why the Disney Company never took the opportunity to exploit their rich legacy. If the story simply restricted itself to the nineteen thirties and the young striving cartoon studio alone. Boy, what a story that would make. Think of the time period, the music and fashion of the time. Think of a facility filled with eager, talented young men and women practically creating a new medium that would ultimately change Hollywood and the movie business. Think of a dynamic leader like Walt Disney being the "Steve Jobs" of his time. What a story that would make. I don't know about you, but I'd sure pay good money to see such a film.

Of course, I know the movie business is ultimately a business and studios want to produce stuff they can sell. While there's always room for a fair number of fantasy films, super heroes and inane cartoons, it sure would be nice to have something of substance every now and then. Such a film wouldn't even be that expensive to produce. After all, there's no expensive sets to build or costly special effects to produce. It would simply be the story of one of the most fascinating men of our time. Sounds like a pretty good idea to me. Then again, what do I know?

 

Friday
Jan182013

The (once) Magic Kingdom

I'm not referring to the famous theme park when I say, Magic Kingdom. That nifty idea was probably somewhere in Walt's head but it remained a long, long way from being a reality. No matter. Things were going pretty well for the "Old Maestro" (still a young man) as he ruled over his Burbank Kingdom.

I love this photograph probably taken sometime in the late thirties or early forties. The boss looks pleased and relaxed. Walt Disney Productions had finally made the move from Hyperion over in Silverlake to their swanky new digs in the San Fernando Valley. I would imagine things looked pretty promising to Walt as he made plans for the future. Of course, as we know from history there would be many things that would negatively impact the fledgling studio. A world war and a strident labor action would be one of the many challenges Walt Disney Productions would eventually face.

Putting those things aside, let's take a moment to enjoy a peaceful spring afternoon with Walt Disney as he smiles for the camera. That's the Animation Building in the background and employees often enjoyed lunch on the sprawling studio lawn. More university campus than grundgy movie studio lot, Walt Disney Productions offered its employees a good deal more than simply a challenging job. It was the premiere animation house. The cartoon studio every other studio measured itself by. Walt Disney Productions was the top of the heap and simply having worked there for a time gave your resumé a considerable boost.

The Magic Kingdom is much larger today. It's employees number in the hundreds of thousands and I doubt the "Old Man" would even recognize the place if he came back today. The world we see in this photograph is long gone along with many of the ideals that once made this company so special. Of course, that's the plight of many companies today so we shouldn't be surprised. Trading your legacy for a buck has pretty much become the American way of life, hasn't it?

 

Thursday
Jan172013

Old School Storyboarding

What's wrong with this picture? Yes, those are storyboards on my desk, but guess what? Not a Cintiq Tablet in sight. Now, don't think I'm anti-Cintiq or anything like that. I have a Cintiq Tablet and I've done my fair share of storyboarding on the amazing device. However, we've chosen to storyboard this project on paper. That's correct. Pencil and paper. Talk about Old School.

I probably wouldn't be wrong to guess that every studio in the animation industry has switched over to using the Cintiq. It's an effective device to be sure and I guess one could give any number of reasons why storyboard artists should be working this way. Nothing wrong with that, I guess. However, after doing a number of storyboards on the Cintiq Tablet I couldn't help but be a little curious how it would feel to return to pencil and paper. I gotta admit it feels pretty darn good. In many ways it felt as though I had been projected back to the nineteen sixties when all storyboards were sketched on paper. I love the feel of the pencil and the texture of the paper. Yes, that even includes the special "drag" you get when the tip of the graphite hits the surface of the paper.

Yes I know how much faster one can work on the Cintiq. I know about the advantage of layers, cut and paste, color and all the other bells and whistles. None of those dandy extras are available when you're working on paper. You simply sketch the ideas on paper and be sure they work. In a strange way you're making a committment to the work you're doing. There's nothing there to save you or to distract the viewer. The storyboard simply has to do its job. The board has to work.

Of course, there's one other overlooked little extra you gain while working on paper. That is, the storyboard is an original piece. It's not a print out or a digital copy it's the real deal. So much of the work being done today simply exists as one's and zero's in a computer. Pull the plug or crash the server and all the original work simply vanishes. Poof! It's gone. Of course, they say such a thing could never happen with all the back ups and back up of back ups. All I know is we still have original art that was created back in the forties and the material looks great. I can't help wonder what we'll have fifty years from now - or if we'll have anything at all?

Whatever. We now live and work in a digital age and that's not gonna change anytime soon. In the meantime, I'm storyboarding with pencil and paper and for this old animation veteran it doesn't seem half bad.

Tuesday
Jan152013

A Real Puppet Show

I've often joked that animation has become less a drawing medium and more of a "puppet show" in the past decade or so. Before you freak out and consider this an attack on CG animators, let me remind you that I maintain the greatest respect for today's digital animators who continue to do remarkable work and the results can easily be seen up on the big screen in today's animated feature motion pictures.

However, I have worked on real puppet shows and the photogaph below was taken on the set of one of those creative and inventive shows. I'm still amazed at the creative skills of the puppeteer and how he or she is able to breathe life into an inanimate object. I guess I shouldn't be surprised, really. As animators we're all striving to create a believeable performance. It has always been a delight to work and speak with these talented individuals and learn more about their craft.

I met one young animator while working at Pixar Animation Studios some years ago. I wondered what led her to become an animator and her answer surprised me. She told me she had worked with Jim Henson and the Muppets before coming to Pixar. After giving her answer some thought I realized it made perfect sense. When it comes to giving a performance can you think of anything better than a Muppet? She merely took the next logical step. After polishing her skills on Muppet characters, she simply moved on to the "cyber puppets" used in digital animation. Animation is animation, after all.

In this particular show we're talking old school. There were no CGI assists. Only talented puppeteers bringing the delightful characters to life. My job was to help move the shooting along by preparing a series of storyboards for the sequences being shot that day. The work was fast and furious, and the days were often very long. In any event I gotta say it was the most fun I've had doing a show in a long, long time.