Saturday, 22 February 2014

Saturday Morning Cartoons - How To Train Your Dinosaur

I've seen several different dates on the subject. My Simpsons calendar indicates it's today. Many websites reported it happened 2 Saturdays ago, February 8th, with special screenings and theme parties. A Google search just told me it's September 14th. Whatever the case, Gertie The Dinosaur celebrates her 100th birthday this year. And the world of cartoons owes her and her creator, Winsor McCay, a great deal of gratitude for ensuring the animation artform didn't go extinct.

Released to vaudevillian audiences in 1914 (you pick a date) as "the greatest animal act in the world", Gertie The Dinosaur is considered to be the first "personality" animation ever done. Don't over-read that. It's the first cartoon to feature a specific style of animation - not the first cartoon ever, as it is sometimes mistaken. In fact, Winsor McCay released 2 cartoons prior to Gertie - 1911's Little Nemo, which was based on his classic comic strip, and 1912's How A Mosquito Operates.

Yeesh, that mosquito cartoon is creepy even by today's standards!

Winsor McCay was not afraid to push the envelope. He was an innovator in style and technique. But his refusal to accept that (and maybe a general lack of business acumen?) would obscure the legacy he left behind. 

McCay officially left the comics scene in 1911, and became interested in animation while admiring his son's flip books. But how he would present this animation was rooted in the unique way he was presenting his comic strip art at the time - live in front of an audience.

In 1906, McCay was paid to do live chalk drawings on the vaudeville circuit - $500 per week for 25 sketches per show in 15 minutes. He had a routine called The Seven Ages Of Man, where he would progressively age 2 faces through a series of drawings.

This interactivity for an audience is what set Gertie apart. If you haven't watched the cartoon before, observe below before we go any further. The animation itself doesn't start until the 7:00 mark, but watch the footage from the beginning if you're interested in seeing McCay himself in (staged?) action.

I just love that elephant bit. Even a century later, it's still funny.

So obviously the above is a later version of the Gertie film, with the intro and title cards added for some perspective in order to run in movie theatres. The original Gertie was just the animation itself, but those title cards placed in the above would be a good representation of what Winsor McCay would be saying in person to the audience, interacting with his drawings. Winsor, with an actual whip in hand, would instruct the dinosaur to behave or lift its leg. When Gertie disobeyed, Winsor would get angry and the dinosaur would react. When she was good, Winsor would toss Gertie an apple off stage, timed in such a way where it would be integrated into the animation, connecting performer to cartoon.

At the end of each show, the real Winsor would walk off-stage, and then magically re-appear on-screen in animated form.

This was cutting edge stuff at the time, and the show was an instant hit making Gertie one of the first-ever cartoon stars. McCay made lots of other cartoons after that (many of which only exist in bits and pieces), but Gertie is the only one that's well-known. Why? Because it set the standards for animation to come.

It order to make this film, McCay recruited his neighbour, art student John A. Fitzsimmons, to trace all backgrounds onto rice paper, while McCay produced the dinosaur drawings. This was the first film he made utilizing backgrounds.

There were over 10,000 drawings in total made in 6 months, which is quite astonishing considering the way they farm out animation today. Each drawing was mounted on cardboard so that McCay could check his animation, adopting a much grander version of his son's flip book.

He also used marks in the corners of his drawings, which would help to line up the animation better and eliminate shakiness.

Some scenes, like when Gertie is dancing, made first use of animation loops - reusing footage to create a cycle of similar movement, which saved time and money. This would DEFINITELY be employed in cartoons to come.

The film also invented industry standard terms like "inbetweening", which refers to the frames between keyframe poses. Keyframes indicate movement and change, while the inbetweens are meant more as filler. This saves time and allows for filmmakers to focus on timing and personality.

This attention to detail is what set Gertie apart - not only in technique, but in terms of what you see on the screen. Gertie has true personality - an amazing feat for a silent film. And there's always something going on in the background, whether it's water dripping or the ground sagging. It reveals the inner perfectionism of McCay. In fact, a scene where a lizard flies overhead, was meant to act as a distraction from a scene where Gertie gets up, which McCay feared was inaccurate to the movements of an actual dinosaur.

As mentioned, McCay never trademarked any of his techniques, and obviously felt animation was for the people. So when a journalist arrived at his studio during the production of Gertie asking questions, McCay had no problem sharing his ideas and systems. That journalist was a rival animator, John Randolph Bray, who later patented those same techniques as his own, and tried to sue McCay in the process. McCay won the case and received royalties from Bray afterwards. But one can't help but think that if McCay had the foresight to better own his creations, he'd receive more credit today for his contributions.

But to those who actually work in cartoons, McCay is still a hero - inspiring a generation of famous animators. Walt Disney, who was obviously far better at taking ownership, paid homage to McCay and Gertie in a 1955 episode of Disneyland.

You can also find Dinosaur Gertie's Ice Cream at Disney's Hollywood Studios in Walt Disney World.

Attempts to revive Gertie were made in 1921, when McCay was working on a sequel called 'Gertie On Tour'. The film was supposed to show Gertie crossing America, visiting and interfering with famous US landmarks. But all that exists from the film are a few drawings and a bit of revived footage.

Most of McCay's work, both as cartoonist and animator, have not been well-preserved. But in the case of Gertie, it's amazing what even 2 minutes of footage can do to establish a long-lasting legend.

Happy birthday, Gertie! Even 100 years later, you're still the life of the party!

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Winter Laff-A-Lympics

Remember Laff-A-Lympics? They were not quite prestigious sporting competitions officiated by Hanna-Barbera, which would air (and re-air) in the 1970s and 80s - sometimes conveniently during the years when a similar series of games would receive television coverage. I can't recall the name of that event, but apparently it has Greek origins.

What bothered me about Laff-A-Lympics (other than the blatant spelling errors and the fact there isn't really a "laff" to be found in the whole series) is the fact that barely any of the competitions took place in the winter! The only winter-themed events that were held included...

Downhill Skiing, Ice Skating and Toboggan Race  (Swiss Alps - 1977 / Winners: The Scooby Doobies, 105 pts)

Hang The Bell On The Abominable Snowman and Climbing Mount Everest  (The Himalayas - 1977 / Winners: The Scooby Doobies, 90 pts)

Get Your Man Contest and Dog Sled Race  (Canada - 1978 / Winners: The Yogi Yahooeys, 85 pts)

While typing this, I sometimes get the sense that other countries view winter sports as a bit of a joke.

To largely ignore these winter-based Greek sporting competitions (note to self: research actual name of event) is a major faux pas here in Canada. #WeAreWinter, after all!

That said, today I thought I'd highlight a TRUE Winter Laff-A-Lympics, and expand the playing field a bit by introducing a few non Hanna-Barberathletes into the mix!


Goofy from Team USA easily claimed gold in ski jump (and most sports in general), as showcased in this clip from The Art of Skiing. This is nothing new to Goofy though. Honestly he could probably do this kind of event in his sleep.

Claiming silver and bronze respectively (but only due to lack of competition) is a bear and Popeye, a Ski Jump Chump if there ever was one.


Popeye fared much better in (and starred in better cartoons relating to) alpine and downhill skiing. Early in his training, it wasn't uncommon for Popeye to construct his own skis, as you can ski see in 'I-Ski Love-Ski You-Ski'.


Popeye also inadvertently created his own skis in 'I'll Be Skiing You', while trying to keep up with Olive Oyl. He fared well, but the sailor-turned-skier was later disqualified for illegal spinach use.

According to this cartoon, Popeye and Olive may have fared better in...


Jerry and Nibbles got off to a shaky start, but ended up dominating the competition with their routine called 'Mice Follies', set to Tchaikovsky's waltz from "Sleeping Beauty". Bonus kudos for the pair's ability to do their own lighting. It would not be enough for gold though, due to low scores from the feline judge.


That same judge proved to be quite formidable at speed skating, and showed true sporting spirit as he sustained a major injury to his abdomen, yet still continued the program. Amazingly, he was also able to incorporate luge into his performance at the 2:00 mark.


At first I thought it was Goofy of skiing fame who took to the ice (and the stands and the coaching bench), but it was in fact Icebox Burtino, Fearless Ferguson, "Clean Game" Kinney, etc. At press time, the score was 342 to 329 - too close to call.


Peppermint Patty pirouetted past some audio problems to prove quite the crowd pleaser in this performance from 'She's A Good Skate, Charlie Brown', set to Puccini's "O mio babbino caro".


Mickey Mouse also skated a fine program 'On Ice', but will likely receive point deductions for hitting that barrel.

Goofy, who once showed such promise on the rink and slopes, tarnished his good name on the pond by forgetting that the 'Lympics have been tobacco-free since 1988.


Team Canada suffered a major upset to Mexico!

And at the end of the day, the current front-runner in the standings is...Inspector Gadget. 

In the first episode of his TV series, Inspector Gadget proved a triple threat in skiing, bobsledding and hockey, and took to the podium to give a lecture and receive a gold medal in "best demonstrating the Olympic spirit". (The Olympics! That's what the event is called!)

Upon review of the tapes though, there's a controversy fuelling rumours that it may not have been Inspector Gadget participating at all, but Powdered Toastman in disguise! We'll have more on this breaking story 4 years from now!

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Man-Child At The Movies (The LEGO Movie)

If you're going to appreciate this movie on any level, you first have to be prepared to "LEGO" of the notion that you're about to watch a giant toy commercial.

It's called The LEGO Movie, for goodness sake. You must have known what you were getting into. But trust me, you'll be surprised at how quickly you forget about that trepidation.

Let's get the bad out of the way first. This movie's theme song has been stuck in my head for 7 straight days. And I know I'm not alone out there. Every kid and his/her parent leaving that theatre last Saturday was singing this on their way out to their car. What was cute and fun for the whole family then, is now probably the cause of great dysfunction. My girlfriend, growing weary of her own incessant singing, sat in a dark room for an hour, listening to Mellow Indie on Songza in an effort to numb that relentlessly optimistic techno beat!

The sweet irony of having that song stuck in your head, is the fact that The LEGO Movie is about a conformist city of brainwashed little LEGO guys, who by decree of President Business (played by Will Ferrell) can only listen to one song over and over again - that same song you listened to above. The whole audience that morning became the city of Bricksburg. But hopefully later in the week they were all able to move on, like Emmet, the hero of our story.

Emmet, voiced by Parks and Recreation's Chris Pratt, is a real dullard at the start of The LEGO Movie - complacent and brain-washed by a society that discourages individuality. That is until he is spiritually awakened by (and totally crushing out on) the mysterious Wyldstyle, played by Elizabeth Banks. Wyldstyle is under the impression that Emmet has the power to change the world as a Master Builder, and recruits him to join her freedom force, which also includes wizard Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), Metalbeard the pirate (Nick Offerman), Benny the 1980's space guy (Charlie Day), a Ninja Turtle, William Shakespeare, half-unicorn, half-kitty Uni-Kitty (Allison Brie), futuristic Abe Lincoln (Will Forte), Superman (Channing Tatum), Green Lantern (Jonah Hill) and brooding boyfriend, Batman (Will Arnett) - just to name a few. This is the kind of ludicrous world The LEGO Movie builds for you, and you're okay with that.

The only reason I even considered watching The LEGO Movie is the film's directors, Phil Lord and Chris Miller. Phil and Chris had a hand in both Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs movies, and both 21 and 22 Jump Street. They also created cult cartoon series, Clone High. They have great comedic sensibilities, and in the case of the Cloudy movies, made me reconsider the way I felt about CG animation.

The LEGO Movie has both an irreverent sense of humour (as has been pretty consistent with the brand, if you've seen any of the other LEGO parody films or video games) and a great, unexpected visual flair. There's a lot of texture to this movie. It always feels like something a nerd could've made in his/her basement, even when you have no idea how it was accomplished. Explosions are made out of LEGO! Ocean waves are cascades of rippling LEGO. Every detail of the film appears to have been practically made by Master Builders. The shower scene with Emmet is particularly inventive.

Most of the movie is CG, while a small percentage is stop-motion animated, keeping in the spirit of the countless fan-made "brick films" on-line that helped to inspire it. Animation director Chris McKay spoke to the reasoning behind that decision in an interview with IO9.

"You can't create a movie like this, with this level of detail and ambition and scope, in stop motion. Or, at least, if you're going to do it, it would be very expensive and take a very long time to produce.

"We said, "Look, we're going to make this movie with a certain set of limitations." Because the biggest problem with CG is there's no rules. You can do whatever you want. We wanted to create something that felt like it was grounded in reality.

"I worked in stop motion on Robot Chicken and Moral Orel. There is something about being physically on a set in an 8-inch scale, animators getting their hands on - there's a real charm to that. We wanted to try to make this movie feel like that. There's a charm to those brick films. I think part of that comes from the heart and soul of the filmmaker who comes to the table and wants to create something that is probably beyond their scope. There's something about trying to achieve that thing, that big gigantic thing, on this tiny little scale and format. With these charming little guys. To me, there's something really sincere and sweet about that."

"We wanted the movie to feel like that. We wanted to take what could have been the most fucking cynical cash grab in the world, and turn it into something warm and beautiful and charming [that] takes itself seriously in the right ways."

I hope Michael Bay reads this interview before he completes his next soulless Transformers train-wreck.

The screenplay is also part of The LEGO Movie's charms. Grounded deep in reality, it dares kids to be creative, but shows them the benefits of practical thinking in a group dynamic. It scolds adult LEGO-maniacs for never straying from the manual. It shows a world where everyone has a place, if we learn to better understand each other. Not bad for a toy commercial, right? And of course it's pure nostalgia, invoking those memories of your own LEGO builds when you were a kid. I had one of those 1980's space guys, and his helmet was cracked in the exact same spot as the one in the movie!

The LEGO Movie is a treat for both kids and adults. There are so many layers to the backgrounds and the humour is subtle and subversive enough to warrant repeat viewings. I'm sure my niece and nephew would agree, as they sat silent and slack-jawed like their uncle for the entire 100 minute running time.

The LEGO Movie is better than it has any business to be. And that's why you won't mind singing that damn Tegan and Sara song, as you gleefully drive to Toys "R" Us to buy your kids the Cloud Cuckoo Land playset.

Everything is awesome, indeed. See you in 5 years for The LEGO Movie 2!

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Watch And Learn

Last week, I posted about the wonderful Wizard of Oz cartoon that I used to watch as an 80's kid growing up in small town Manitoba. Each cartoon episode was only about 5 minutes. I know multiple episodes aired together as a 30 minute show, but I also seem to recall individual cartoons airing as filler between other 30 minute programs.

It reminded me of another filler piece that used to air between Canadian cartoons at the time. Who remembers this?

Max, The 2000 Year Old Mouse (1968-1969) lived a great life. But don't let that interesting point and title fool you. He is a dreadfully dull and uninteresting little rodent. In fact, he barely even told the stories he purportedly lived through. He just rambled on in his annoying tone, until the voice over guy had to be brought in to lend credibility to the educational material being crammed into our ear and eye-holes. If you know the series, you won't be surprised to learn it was paid for by Encyclopedia Britannica. 

Coincidentally, I was thinking about these shorts, as I was reading a book that my friends, Russ and Amber, gave to me for Christmas called, "Unfiltered: The Complete Ralph Bakshi". Wouldn't you know it, that Bakshi, animation pioneer and legend, was behind this unappealing little mouse dropping. In fact, there was a shocking amount of other talent being wasted in these films, which I'll get to.

The connection makes sense, and I can't believe I didn't pick up on it before. It was a Krantz Films production, based in Toronto. You may recall me recollecting fondly over the infamous Bakshi/Krantz Spider-Man (Spiderman?) series in Season 3, which a lot of people hated and I rather enjoyed. Spider-Man at least had a semblance of entertainment value during that time. Max, The 2000 Year Old Mouse was a boring lecture, but it still had a lot of similarities to Spider-Man

I'm afraid you may have to watch another one of these to know what I'm talking about...

The theme song itself gave plenty of hints. Look at how off-model the mouse is compared to what he looked like in the show, even from episode-to-episode. It wasn't uncommon for Spider-Man to appear similarly inconsistent throughout.

The narrator (Bernard Cowan, who was also an announcer for CBC) is the same voice occasionally used for voice-overs on Spider-Man.

And similar effects at the 8 second mark in Max's strobe-heavy theme song could be seen in the equally trippy Spider-Man cartoon series.

While I was shocked to learn that Bakshi had a hand in this, I just became downright depressed when I learned who else had been dragged into it. 

Shamus Culhane was a director. Culhane had a hand in animating the classic "Heigh-Ho" sequence in Disney's Snow White and The Seven Dwarves, and you may recall me singing his praises as an under-appreciated renegade at Walter Lantz's studios. Shamus had semi-retired by the time he was working on this series, and to have it book-end such an interesting career is disappointing to say the least. But a guy's gotta work, right? 

Paul Soles, the voice of Max, was also the voice of your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man, and also memorably portrayed Hermes, the misfit elf in Rankin/Bass's Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer. Here, as Max, it seems like he recognized there was no point in even trying to be funny. Why would you give this unlikable blowhard anything but an incredibly unlikable voice?

We know, we know, Max! You're 2000 years old! Christ, it feels like you've told us this 2000 times already!

My own, more reliable mouse, tells me via the Interweb that there were 104 (!) episodes of this series! I could watch 3, maybe 4 "max". But somebody must have enjoyed them, to motivate Shamus Culhane in continuing this trend in 1970, as director of a similar series called The Wonderful Stories of Professor Kitzel.

I also remember seeing Professor Kitzel in 5 minute bits on Canadian television. This time around, Paul Soles is the narrator. And the format, while still preachy, is much more entertaining than Max. Professor Kitzel and his parrot are far more appealing than that braggart pipsqueak. Could we train this parrot to eat mice?

Wikipedia says there are 106 episodes of this series! Can that be accurate? Seems excessive, despite our liking it.

Steve Krantz also continued to educate in 1971 (after parting ways with Ralph Bakshi over a Fritz The Cat fall-out), and continued to make short educational films for Encyclopedia Britannica.

Wow, I think I kinda "max'd" out when it comes to education. Let's forget everything we've just learned, and remember guys like Ralph Bakshi, Shamus Culhane and Paul Soles in better times, celebrating their prouder moments and contributions to cartoons.

Smartest thing I've done all morning!