Saturday, 30 November 2013

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Snow Day

I guess it's not your traditional grade-school definition of a "snow day". It's only a Snow Day in my head because I've been too tired (and smart) to shovel out from last week's dumping. But in order to motivate myself (and stall the inevitable), I'm snow-casing some cool content here to help ease your winter's (sidewalk clearing) discontent. So bundle up (in a Snuggie) and dig (a dozen cartoons)!

Now get to work (in helping me find more cartoons to watch until the next blizzard)!

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Saturday Morning Cartoons - A Gift 'Horse'

This past Thursday night, I attended a sneak peek screening of Disney's Frozen. But I left before the movie started. It looks terrible. I'll eventually give it a try, but I just couldn't commit to it that night. I had to buy champagne flutes. Y'know, important stuff. But I did make time to stay for the first 7 minutes prior to Frozen, because screenings are preceded by a new Mickey Mouse short entitled 'Get A Horse!' And oh boy, is it a wonderful way to celebrate Mickey's 85th birthday!

Entertainment reporter Jim Hill sold me on it before I even watched it, in an article he wrote this week for The Huffington Post. In it, he informed me of some interesting facts about this new "old" cartoon.

It's directed by Lauren MacMullan, who worked on decidedly non-Disney fare like The Simpsons, King of The Hill and The Critic prior to joining the House of Mouse. Her first gig at Disney was Wreck-It-Ralph, where she worked with another former-Simpsons director, Rich Moore. Lauren had been discussing her love of old Mickey Mouse cartoons, and Rich encouraged her to pitch some ideas to the head of Walt Disney's Animation Studios, John Lasseter. Apparently Disney had been shopping around for a way to celebrate Mickey's birthday anyway, and Lauren's clever cartoon concept was green-lit in the first meeting.

"I re-watched a lot of the old black-and-white cartoons", she said. "And I just loved how Mickey could do anything in those shorts. How, if he wanted to tip his hat to Minnie but Mickey wasn't actually wearing a hat at that time, he'd just lift his ears clean off his skull. I wanted to tell a story that was set in that anything-is-possible universe. So I came up with a premise that I thought was kind of unusual."

Without completely ruining it for you, this cartoon is not what you'd expect. Especially considering the clip they released...

When talk of this short hit the Internet this past summer, Disney positioned it as a "lost" film from the golden age of cartoons. Later when the filmmakers started hitting festival circuits, that news became bogus, as it was revealed that it would include more current flourishes to represent the Mickey Mouse of today.

Keep in mind that in a theatre, you'll be watching that above clip on a big screen, wearing a pair of 3D glasses. It'll seem awkward at first, and then not long afterwards, the cartoon will explode - becoming more experimental to reflect current technology in a completely entertaining and offbeat way. It's rare that 3D is treated properly to enhance the product. This one does so successfully. As my friend, Mark, stated after watching it - "There was better use of 3D in those 7 minutes than there was in all of Thor." I couldn't agree more.

Apparently this cartoon took about a year to make, and was basically 2 animated films in one - one part traditional hand-drawn 2D, and the other CG/3D. When you see the movie, you'll find it difficult to catch everything happening in a single sitting. It really is like trying to watch 2 films at once. You'll also appreciate the seamless melding of the old (or what looks like the old) with the new. Knowing some of the behind-the-scenes stories beforehand on both sides helped me to appreciate the work even more.

The 2-minute 2D intro (which is obviously highlighted in the above clip) is meant to represent the first Mickey Mouse of the 1920's, as created by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks.

To capture the old-timeyness of 1920's Mickey Mouse, actual voice recordings of Walt Disney as Mickey were found and used in the film. Finding the right archival material to fit the script was pain-staking. In fact, his utterance of the word 'red', for example, didn't really exist. But sound technicians were able to piece it together after 2 1/2 weeks of massaging proper syllables.

The other attention to detail that I love in the 1920's section, is the devolution of modern-day animation. Basically the animators had to forget everything they were taught, because techniques of today didn't exist back then, when Disney and Iwerks were cranking out cartoons. This gives the film an unpolished but nostalgic feel.

Lead animator, the talented and passionate Eric Goldberg, who trained himself to mimic this 1920's-style of drawing, spoke to how current technology was also used to set the film back 85 years. "We cleaned it up first, but then made it boil more," he said. "As a result, the drawings have the spontaneity they would've had in that era. We added gate weave, density flicker around the sides, bloom around the blacks to make it look like overexposed film, dust, scratches, neg dirt blobs. And then we did a mistake pass."

I love that term! A "mistake pass"! Goldberg and the animators purposely went back and planted mistakes in select scenes, to give it a more rushed, novice feel. "We'd tell Gina Bradley, our head of scene planning, that she needed to go back into a particular scene and, for just two frames, make the buttons on Mickey's pants go from being white to black."

The last 5 minutes, or the more present-day portion of the cartoon, also involved an impressive attention to detail, which you'd never really consider unless you actually had to work on the short. For example, you know how no matter which way you look at a hand-drawn Mickey Mouse, you always see his full ear profile? Like, whether it's from the front or from the side, you always see his ears looking like this - Mickey Mouse. Well, a 3D rendering is meant to achieve a more realistic look - but to keep the short cartoon-y, the makers of 'Get A Horse!' had to "unrealistically" alter those ears to fit his trademark profile in the side-shots.

As you can see in the above still, a large part of the outside action takes place on a CG rendered stage. This involved a lot of pre-visualization as to how the cartoon would look on the big-screen, as described by director MacMullan.

"Our head of tech did a lot of research into what the average dimensions are for a modern-day movie theatre. With the row of seats, if you're too high or too low, the stage feels wrong and it has to work in these parameters. I've been going around to film festivals with the short, and we've had a wide variety of theatres, and it's interesting that different jokes play differently in different theatres."

Depending on where you're sitting, a different level of realism can be attained in different parts of the theatre. "When we showed our crew the short for the first time, the art director brought his 5-year old son to see it," she said. "They came in late, so they were sitting pretty close, and he told me later than when Mickey comes out of the screen and lands on the stage, for 5 minutes afterwards, his son would be looking around for him."

I was sitting to the front left while watching this, and can pinpoint at least 2 scenes in particular where it was like the action was meant for me and only me. It made me wonder what the right hand side of the theatre was experiencing. Let's just say they take full advantage of the space provided.

Anyway, I feel like I've already given away far too much about this cartoon (uhhh...spoiler alert?), but I hope you'll still consider seeing it when it hits theatres this Wednesday with Frozen. If you're a cartoon buff, it's both a loving nod to animation's roots, but at the same time, an encouraging look at how CG can still honour and even enhance those basics established by pioneers like Disney and Iwerks.

Best of all, it's a return to form for Mickey Mouse, who deserves this newfound attention. For too long he's languished as this homogenized shadow of himself - the brand! But now with this new short, and the great new TV series that I gushed about not-so-long ago, he's like this fresh new face. Kudos must be given to the current Disney regime for continuing to embrace and encourage creative departures like this - a lot of which push the envelope of what you'd traditionally expect to see from Disney. And regardless of your preferences (2D vs. CG), they still know how to bring in both adult fans and kids alike. Frozen doesn't seem like my cup of tea, but be damned if this cartoon didn't lure me into the theatre. Well played, Disney. Well played.

I've spent a lot of time here blathering on about technique and "the art form", which is important, I guess. But I like that director MacMullan knows the other key to making a good cartoon.

"For the most part, we just tried to make it as funny as we could," she said. "A nice ramification is that people seem to be happy to see him, and it's been great making people laugh. When is the last time Mickey Mouse did anything that could make you laugh?"

That last statement shouldn't be a game-changer, but it is. Someone give this woman an Oscar and a feature length film!

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Signor Thomasino Catti-Cazzaza and Mouse-tro Jerry

This is how most people remember Tom and Jerry...

...a violence-prone pair of psychotics, constantly bent on bodily harm and killing each other. But to quote a Fugees song (and why not?), few people remember they also sometimes killed softly, with their song.

When Tom and Jerry were first created in the 1940's by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, there was little left to the imagination. "Cats hate mice and vice versa, so let's make a series of funny shorts about them beating on each other." But about 6 years after their first release, Tom and Jerry started to show signs of significant musical sophistication.

These seeds of song were planted by Hanna Barbera long before Tom and Jerry were a famous cat and mouse. Prior to that, when Hanna Barbera was working for the Van Beuren studios in the 1930's, Tom and Jerry were a couple of average schlubs, picking up odd jobs as stories dictated. In 1932's 'Piano Tooners', this "other" Tom showed quite a gift for piano playing, as do the mice who appear to have infested his apartment. This would prove symbolic of what was to come.

Tom and Jerry, the cat and mouse, would commence their musical leanings by tackling popular songs of the time, like in 1946's 'Solid Serenade', where Tom plucks a heavy-handed bass and adopts a voice that sounds very blues influenced.

One short year later, Tom and Jerry would reveal more classical influences, and were suddenly performing sold-out shows for live audiences (with complete orchestras!), as seen in 1947's 'The Cat Concerto'.

The great thing about this cartoon, especially noticeable if you're a pianist, is the accuracy shown in the playing. At least more so than you'd see nowadays, where the camera angle would purposely peer over the piano from the backside, in order to avoid having people attempt to animate fingers. This cartoon embraces a multi-angle look at those keys, where gags in the finger placement become plentiful. Not sure if the playing is 100% accurate (anyone know Franz Liszt's "Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2"?), but it certainly seems to be, at least in relation to Tom's position on the bench and keys. When his right pinkie impossibly stretches to reach those high notes, it makes you wonder as you listen to the music how it could have possibly been played by a human being. It's probably very realistic, but the cartoon makes me believe it isn't.

The other great thing about this short (along with every other first-edition Tom and Jerry, thanks to brilliant composer Scott Bradley) is how the violence is perfectly synced to the performance. Like most classic cartoons, I consider it a musical education. Here, I can take an interest in Franz Liszt, but simultaneously laugh 'til I cry, as Tom's flattened fingers struggle to ensure the show must go on. 

There's a Bugs Bunny cartoon that came out that same year called 'Rhapsody Rabbit', a reference to the fact that it too features the same piece of music by composer Franz Liszt. This one also features a musical battle against a mouse, who lives in a piano and eventually gets the better of Bugs. It's a very funny cartoon as well, but regardless of who ripped off whom (both Warner Bros. and MGM fought about it, but don't think they ever resolved it), I will always give the edge to the Tom and Jerry version, because it doesn't need dialogue to be spectacularly funny, and it deviates less from the actual "performance". (ie. no audience members were harmed in the making of the film)

I think The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences shared my sentiments, as they awarded Tom and Jerry with the Academy Award for Best Short Subject that year.

By the way, Franz Liszt's "Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2" became a cartoon classical go-to. Numerous Warner Bros. cartoons used it, like 1941's 'Rhapsody In Rivets'. Daffy and Donald Duck entertained The Ink and Paint Club with it in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Daffy also released a parody of the song called 'Daffy's Rhapsody', which was used as the soundtrack for a CG cartoon of the same name last year. 

But I digress. What sets Tom and Jerry apart from the Warner Bros. lot is that they didn't need to milk Liszt for all he was worth. They had other influences.

'Johann Mouse' from 1952, pays homage to one of the most famous waltzes in the world, Strauss's "The Blue Danube". Everybody knows this song, but people are more likely to know it as referred to here - "The Waltz".

Johann Strauss was saluted again in 1950's 'Tom and Jerry In The Hollywood Bowl', which put the cat and mouse back in front of a captive audience - this time not as musicians, but as orchestra co-conductors.

Only the makers of Tom and Jerry could somehow showcase the overture to "Die Fledermaus" and set it to footage of a cat getting hit by a bus. 

Click the poor bow-eyed bugger below to watch. 

Tom and Jerry's musical influences continued post-Hanna Barbera as well. Gene Deitch's final Tom and Jerry cartoon, called 'Carmen Get It!' from 1962, placed the pair in the Metropolitan Opera House where Georges Bizet's 'Carmen' was being performed. The opera acts more as a setting than a profession in this one, but Tom still seems cultured enough to know a few notes from "The Toreador Song"

Click any of the below cases below to watch.

Tom (or is that, Thomasino?) and Jerry were actual vocalists in a production of 'The Barber Of Seville' (another classical cartoon staple) in this Chuck Jones-directed bill from 1964, called 'The Cat Above And The Mouse Below'. And based on the destructive outcome, I can only assume the show didn't receive an extended run.

Because of that, or perhaps uncomfortable with being pigeon-holed as a classical mouse-ician, Jerry went bohemian in later years to become an underground drummer in a hipster nightclub, as evident in 1966's 'Rock N' Rodent'.

As for Tom...he ditched the ego and went back to his roots. And while I'd like to consider him progressive, he seemed temporarily content to close his syndicated TV show every week by simply tickling the ivories. Until that damn mouse turned up again to piss him off. Quite honestly, I don't know where these two found time to practice. 

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Saturday Morning Cartoons - I Mean, Saturday MO'ning Cartoons

I was seeking moustache inspiration this Movember, so I turned to animation (aniMOtion? nah, that's not gonna work!) and can now officially rank my Top 10 List Of The MO-st Awesome Cartoon Character Moustaches Ever In The History Of Pop Culture. You're welcome, everyone!

In order of preference, this list of lip luggage includes...

10) Snidley Whiplash

A villainous creation of Rocky and Bullwinkle's Jay Ward, Snidley Whiplash, arch enemy of Dudley Do-Right, rocks a killer curl! I'm pretty sure that all evil tendencies start with basic moustache twiddling. Then next thing you know, you're tying a helpless damsel to a set of railroad tracks. 

9) Dick Dastardly

While stealing Snidley's trademark curl twirl, Dick Dastardly from Hanna Barbera's Wacky Races is different in that any confidence he gained from that lip whip, was cancelled out every time his dog, Muttley, laughed at him. Before long, his ambitions dashed, he was relegated to bird catching in 1969.

8) Chief Quimby

This confident pose and the cool caterpillar making it happen would also be compromised by inconsiderate and incompetent co-workers - in this case, Inspector Gadget, who would repeatedly blast the bristles right off his boss's face.

Speaking of caterpillars, here's the original pilot episode of Inspector Gadget, featuring a character design choice that had not yet been altered late in the show's development, even in the theme song!

7) Carl Brutananadilewski     

The long suffering neighbour of Aqua Teen Hunger Force has little in life, except for his nose neighbour. But they even took that away from him once, which was profoundly disturbing to me.

6) Big Gay Al

It takes a very confident man to pull off a pencil topper like that. But Big Gay Al owns it. I believe it's what gives this talented South Park resident his power of super-positivity. (thanks for asking)

5) The Little Man

This foil to the Pink Panther is another very confident man, as evidenced by his complete lack of clothing. A lip rug is sometimes all the coverage you need!

The Little Man is rumoured to be a caricature of his diminutive and equally moustachioed co-creator, Friz Freleng. In addition to size, Freleng was also rumoured to be short on temper, which helped to inspire another caricature found below in the #1 spot.

4) The Inspector

A common companion to the Pink Panther in cartoon packaging, The Inspector (Clouseau) sported a thin thtrip strip above his lip, patchier than that of his live action inspiration played by Peter Sellers.

In relation to today's theme, the above version of The Inspector is an imposter and unworthy of this list. But The Inspector as depicted at the start of some of the Pink Panther feature films (featuring animation by Richard Williams) - now THAT'S a French tickler!

3) Wally Walrus

He had a pretty swede sweet 'stache! Mind you, that's unfairly easy for a walrus.

Wally would sport different whiskers over the years, each style more hideous than the last. 

2) Ned Flanders

This particular push-broom ranks higher on the list, solely because of the man's commitment to it. Every month is Movember for Ned Flanders. He combs it, owns it, and speaks of that soup strainer with great pride. And if it weren't attached to the man it was, I think even Homer Simpson would agree that it was a pretty well-formed and majestic mouth brow.

1) Yosemite Sam

A pretty obvious first choice, I know. But how can you not acknowledge this moustache's quality? Those dirt-foxes comprise about 40% of Yosemite's entire person. And it kinda flows up and seamlessly connects to his equally unruly eyebrows. It's bad-ass and he knows it. And it sometimes has a life of its own. 

This is the flavour-saver I will attempt to grow this month. And I too will high-five it when I do, many, many (and I mean, many) years from now.

By the way, as wacky and awesome as it is to grow a moustache this Movember, the point is to also raise money and awareness for men's health issues. I would like to help combat prostate cancer, which has a history in my family. So if you like what you've read, and would consider supporting my facial follicles and the cause surrounding it, please visit Thanks for your support and for hanging out with me this MO'ning!

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Ralph Bakshi's Spider-Man (Or Is That, Spiderman?)

Two things inspired this post - this weekend's local Comic Con at the Convention Centre, and this past Tuesday's birthday of animation legend Ralph Bakshi, who turned 75 on October 29th. 

A lot of people know Ralph Bakshi as "that X-rated cartoonist". Fritz The Cat, Heavy Traffic, Coonskin - these were the cartoons I wasn't allowed to watch at my birthday parties. But a lot of kids my age who grew up watching cartoons in 1980 small-town Canada watched Ralph Bakshi in another, more dad-friendly form of programming. But in retrospect, I don't think it was any better for us than Coonskin. Sure, there was no nudity or swearing, but it certainly made the perceived influence of drugs seem pretty cool.

Let me explain. The first season of ABC's Spider-Man in 1967 was Ralph Bakshi-free, and was relatively true to its comic origins. In fact, Marvel head honcho "Smilin" Stan Lee was a creative consultant, as was "Jazzy" John Romita, Sr. GrantRay Lawrence Animation produced the series, which was a joint production between the U.S. and Canada. That CanCon connection is the reason why this show was a permanent daily repeat for over two decades, alternating between mornings and afternoons. 

I watched the show for at least one those decades, alternating between mornings and afternoons. And while I enjoyed the first season just fine, with familiar villains and comic-inspired storylines, it was the weird second and third season episodes that I preferred, even though they sometimes scared the living sh*t out of me.

When Ralph Bakshi and Krantz Films took over the series after GrantRay Lawrence went bankrupt in 1968, Stan Lee and "Jazzy" Johnny were nowhere to be seen. The villains from the comic books showed up more sporadically. And all of a sudden, Spider-Man was in outer space amid a background that looked like it was exploding.

To write-off this incarnation of Spider-Man as a complete throwaway from the oeuvre is unfair. Some of the Season 2 episodes, in my opinion, were truer to the comic books than Season 1 was. Some episodes focused on the teenage angst of Peter Parker, and how being a super-hero affected his life as a high schooler. These arcs are what Stan Lee and Steve Ditko first explored in the comic's first issues. The Season 1 episodes of Spider-Man spent more time focusing on Peter's job at the Daily Bugle, attempting to salvage his job in the face of his real enemy, newspaper editor and boss J. Jonah Jameson.

In fact, it wasn't until the start of Season 2 that Spider-Man received his first true origin story (called 'The Origin of Spiderman'), which used dialogue and story elements from the first comic book.

Note how Bakshi's main title reference to our hero ditches the use of a hyphen.

One of my favourite episodes from these later seasons is a one-off called 'Diamond Dust', which shuffles back-and-forth between Peter's personal life to Spidey's super-hero struggles. This one showcases some of the best original animation seen in later seasons of the show. Note: This isn't to say the animation is good. It's just a lot better than what would come, featuring less rehashed footage than usual. It's the Fantasia of Bakshi Spider-Man's.

But these acknowledgements of Spidey's roots were far and few between. Occasionally a trademark villain would show up, like in 'Kingpinned' (which also featured J. Jonah Jameson), but more often than not, the episodes would feature green-skinned monsters or creatures from other another world, who somehow weren't far away from Manhattan.

Sometimes the enemy was a "flying cowboy on an electronic horse". (Note again the spelling of our hero's name!)

Speaking of enemies, I always loved the head-trip induced by a devious filmmaker and his cat in 'Pardo Presents'.

Head-trips seemed par for the course in later seasons of Spider-Man, not only in storyline, but in the artwork itself. 

Every Season 2 and 3 episode of Spider-Man is a trip thanks to those bleached out, acid-washed skies, overseen by art director and comic artist, Gray Morrow. 

Sometimes the storylines were trippy solely due to cost-cutting measures. Bakshi and crew made recycling footage an artform. They shamelessly used scenes and entire stories from an earlier Krantz Films production called Rocket Robin Hood (1966-1969), and reworked them to exist in Spider-Man's present day universe. The result was some of the weirdest cartoons you'll ever see. Even as a kid, you'd watch and think to yourself, "That's eff'd up." 

Spider-Man's 'Phantom From The Depths Of Time' was pretty much an awkward shot-for-shot remake of Rocket Robin Hood's 'From Menace To Menace'. And classic, super-scary Spider-Man episode 'Revolt In The Fifth Dimension' ("Talk about science fiction!") couldn't have existed without the equally scary 'Dementia Five' from Rocket Robin Hood. Compare footage, which is pretty much a shot-for-shot remake with different music and lead voices...

This is a good time to talk about the music in Ralph Bakshi's Spider-Man. While some of Ray Ellis's Season 1 music was still used, Season 2 and 3 relied heavily on funky and more experimental instrumentals from KPM's radio production library - a fascinating series of music created by a series of British composers, with names like Alan Hawkshaw, Johnny Hawksworth, Syd Dale and more.

It may not surprise you, but one of the stand-out pieces of production used in 'Revolt In The Fifth Dimension', is a song by Bill Martin and Phil Coulter entitled "L.S.D.". Seems appropriate.

Here's another mini-sampling of music you might remember from Spider-Man, all of which came from KPM...

After I found the source of this music, I started seeking out availability of KPM releases on current formats, and you can still get select cuts on newly remastered packages. Those I do own have a couple of tracks that I recognized from Spider-Man, but those I don't are still great. There are so many fine unknown composers who contributed to the KPM brand, and all of them are cult music legends. 

For more on this music, listen to this awesome podcast which inter-cuts between actual music and dialogue from Spider-Man, into the album tracks the show steals from. Very fascinating, and only begins to touch the surface on what's out there.

But back to recycling for a moment. Bakshi went so far as to spread his money even further by making "new" Spider-Man episodes out of recycled footage from previous Spider-Man episodes! 

Watch how Season 3's 'Rollarama', is basically a rip-off of Season 2's 'Vine' with one major change...

Or how The Master Technician shows no original thinking in his plans for world domination in both Season 2's 'Swing City' and Season 3's 'Specialists And Slaves'.

Or how 'Spiderman Battles The Moleman' (there's that spelling again!) compares to 'Menace From The Bottom Of The World'. Apparently these both aired not-so-subtly in the same season, separated by only one episode! The audacity of these guys is mind-blowing!

Still, I can't stay angry at them. Maybe it's just the nostalgia talking, but I see merit to their cheapie experiment. Despite the lack of resources, I think there was still passion behind the project. And they introduced a never-before-seen (and sometimes jarring!) vision of a comic hero that couldn't be replicated...outside of what they were already replicating, that is. 

Despite the terrible animation and awful drawings, there was still an artfulness to be found. And let's not forget that this provided Bakshi with the springboard he needed to take on other projects, which would eventually revolutionize the way we thought about cartoons. Without Spider-Man, there'd be no Fritz The Cat

I'd like to get into some of Bakshi's later years in a future blog post (especially some of his more unknown kid-friendly material), but for now, Comic Con calls. I'm already late, but I won't speed. It's not becoming of your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man. 

Or is that Spiderman?