Saturday, 26 April 2014

Saturday Morning Cartoons - More Couch Guests (Of The Simpsons)

I just love these couch gags by guest stars at the beginning of recent episodes of The Simpsons. You may recall my gushing over these from last year. Guillermo Del Toro, Bill Plympton, John Kricfalusi, Banksy - all of them provided their own unique openings to the theme song, many of which deviated from the show's previously rigid character designs.

The last batch of gags we watched came out over the course of a few years. Now they're arriving with greater frequency. This new set was seen over the past couple of months.

Sylvain Chomet broke the Internet 7 weeks ago with his beautiful and detailed look at FOX's first family, illustrated in a similar old-timey vain to what you'd see in his feature films like The Triplets of Belleville and The Illusionist. This was at the beginning of the March 9th episode of The Simpsons called 'Diggs'. It's a brilliant minute's worth! And right away, you recognize Sylvain's own stylistic "je ne sais quoi" before he's even credited.

In an article I was reading in the UK's Beak Street Bugle, I learned that Sylvain and Simpsons' creator Matt Groening knew each other many years ago from the film festival circuit. Sylvain also met Simpsons' voice actor, Harry Shearer, by chance, who admitted to being a big fan of Sylvain's work. But it wasn't until a parody from a Season 22 episode called 'Angry Dad: The Movie', that The Simpsons became top-of-mind for Sylvain again. Someone brought the clip to his attention, which he loved. 

You can check it out at the 11:40 mark by clicking the pic below. In fact, the whole episode is worth a view for its skewering of the animation industry in general. 

Sylvain was later asked by The Simpsons crew if he'd like to contribute a couch gag, which he agreed to. When asked for guidelines and input, the show runners gave no specifics, to his surprise. Creative carte blanche! So Sylvain decided to create a French version of The Simpsons, filled with stereotypes like snails and accordions. A picture of French president Francois Hollande hangs on the wall, as does the SS France which replaces the usual framed boat painting that hangs over The Simpsons' couch. 

Perhaps most interesting is the fact that all of The Simpsons are wearing glasses. This was done because Sylvain's characters never have large eyes. By giving them glasses, it better fit into his character design. 

Check underneath the pic of l'Homer if you'd like to watch a short behind-the-scenes video re: Sylvain's process.

The next guest contributor I noticed recently was an unknown by the name of Katie Hemming, who received credit as "Canadian Couch Gag" writer after an episode that aired April 13th called 'Days Of Future Future'. This seemed weird to me because the timing wasn't long after the last Simpsons couch gag contest, which I told you about in my last couch gag post. That winner (Ray Savaya) was flown into Hollywood to meet The Simpsons crew and get autographs. But as it turned out, The Simpsons crew enjoyed Katie's submission much better (ouch! - Ray's win was decided upon by fan voting), so decided to use her gag as well.

The Burlington resident, who attends film school in Toronto, didn't get to go to Hollywood as a result of this, which is kinda bunk. But she did receive a Simpson-ized photo of herself from the show's animators. Sure, she could've made one herself on-line by uploading a photo,, let's face it. She was totally screwed! But she did earn additional bragging rights, as her couch gag was aired globally, not just on Global (in Canada) like Ray's clip was.

Here's her runner-up submission seen 'round the world involving bubble wrap...

And then there's THIS amazing piece, which airs in front of this Sunday's episode called 'What To Expect When Bart's Expecting'...

The animator behind this trip through Homer's brain isn't as well-known as a lot of the other previous talents, like Banksy or Bill Plympton. Poland's Michal Socha based his Simpsons couch gag on one of his similar-looking 2008 shorts called 'Chick', which he said was modelled to emulate the graphic title design of Saul Bass. 

Both clips are a mixture of 2D and CG animation. In an interview with Animation World Network, Socha talked about how he benefited between the 2 methods.

"At the beginning, we thought we could animate the Simpsons family with classic frame-by-frame technique. After a couple of tests, we have found that we are not as good 2D animators as we thought! Our tests tended to lose characters and proportions. That was not acceptable. In this case, it was very important that each black silhouette reminds you of Homer, Bart or Lisa. Classic frame-by-frame technique could take much longer to finish the couch gag. We wanted to keep this animation in 2D style, [which] is why we mixed those 2 techniques to achieve a better result."

Their original couch gag idea didn't pan out, but planted the seed to look into Homer's inner workings. 

"The origin of the idea for "inside" couch gag was just 2 simple drawings," he said. "Family laying on the couch. Tomato slice falls down from the top of the screen, then cheese, ketchup and the top of sandwich. Big hand grabs sandwich with family, and we see that it is Homer that eats family sandwich. It was too short for a couch gag. We have to ask questions [about] what could happen after? We have found [a] whole bunch of ideas [about] what could happen inside the body of Homer."

I can't wait to see what's cooked up for the couch in weeks and years to come, which so far includes up to 26 seasons. 

On a related note (not couch-related, but certainly Simpsons-related), you may be interested to know that a Simpsons "LEGO Spectacular" will air next Sunday, May 4th. 

Called 'Brick Like Me', the 550th episode of the series will revolve around Homer trying to make a choice between a utopian LEGO universe and the "real" world. Not unlike the set-up of The LEGO Movie, I guess.

The episode was made in official partnership with the LEGO Group, who will be releasing Simpsons LEGO sets and official collectible mini-figures. They've been working together on the episode for a couple of years now, but apparently the relationship between the 2 parties started long before, when LEGO approached The Simpsons about guessed it...a couch gag. 

For being such a big brand, you have to respect the LEGO Group for seeing potential in comedic trust. 

"We're pretty picky about how our brand is represented," said Jill Wilfert, the LEGO Group's VP of licensing and entertainment, in an interview with TV Guide. "No one at the show is used to dealing with creative output from the outside, so there was certainly some back-and-forth to get it all right. But, at its core, the LEGO brand is all about creativity and imagination. We respect that in others.

"This was a chance for us to be a little edgier than we might normally be," she said. "And because we'll likely bring younger viewers to The Simpsons, it was an opportunity for them to be more family-friendly."

As someone currently working in marketing and promotions, this gives me new-found hope in building (pun intended) a better tomorrow between clients and the brand. If The Simpsons and LEGO can work it out, so can we, right? That's how I'm going to end every meeting from now on.

Hey, wait a minute! Is LEGO in any way related to BLOCKO? And will it have the longevity to prevail during the holiday shopping season?

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Reused and Recycled

We probably shouldn't be associating this Tuesday's Earth Day with traditional animation. Think about it. How many trees died to provide doodling paper? How many painted celluloid sheets were discarded and burned after use? How many factories churned out millions of pencils at the expense of forests and ozone?

What a depressing start to this post!

Okay, we're not going to celebrate Earth Day in a traditional sense. There will be no 'Best Of' Captain Planet and The Planeteers in the foreseeable future.

Instead, let's take a look at reused and recycled animation from the past few years.

Animation studios didn't reuse animation because it was good for the environment. They did it because it saved money, and could potentially be accessed during a time crunch.

The depression era was an obvious time where penny-pinching was a necessity. Hundreds of 1930's and 1940's Warner Bros. cartoons made frequent reuse of key scenes.

Take a look at 1931's 'Lady, Play Your Mandolin' - then check out some portions of the cartoons to follow.

1931's 'You Don't Know What You're Doin' turns the scared drunken horse from Mandolin, into a scared drunken dog at the 6:11 mark.

You may recognize a familiar horse ride at the :58 mark in 1931's 'Bosko's Fox Hunt'.

'Goopy Geer' from 1932 reuses that same scared drunken horse (6:37), along with lots of other similar scenes and a few recycled (but redrawn) gags.

Sometimes the cartoons were "remakes", but still reused a lot of the same footage. Check out this side-by-side comparison between 1938's 'Porky In Wackyland' (directed by Robert Clampett) as it compares to 1949's colourized 'Dough For The Do-Do' (directed by Friz Freleng).

***NOTE: You may want to mute this clip as the music gets really annoying.***

Sometimes the cartoons were just "clip shows", comprised of previously released cartoon segments surrounded by new connecting filler. Warner Bros. did a lot of these in the 1960's when the studio (like all studios) started shutting down their theatrical animation units, which they couldn't afford to run anymore.

In 1963's 'Devil's Feud Cake', you can see the change in animation quality from the 1940's footage to the 1950's and 60's stuff. Three cartoons were plundered to make this "new" short - 1952's 'Hare Lift', 1955's 'Roman Legion Hare' and 1955's 'Sahara Hare'.

Here's another weird example of Warner Bros. frugality of the time - 1965's 'The Wild Chase', which pairs up the Road Runner and Speedy Gonzales in an awkwardly conceived cross-country race, pulling in old footage and reanimating select scenes in a desperate attempt to fill 6 minutes.

Warner Bros. would revisit and effectively profit from this technique with their TV specials and feature films throughout the 1970's and 80's, which also rehashed vintage era Looney Tunes.

If you're interested in learning more about this on a VERY detailed level, this will probably cover it.

William Hanna and Joseph Barbera were revolutionaries (for good and bad) when it came to cost-cutting, as they streamlined a bare-minimum style of animation for their Saturday morning TV programs. Backgrounds would sometimes repeat dozens of times over as characters chased each other.

Disney animators, though more respected in their craft, were just as guilty for reusing work as anyone else. But I think because of their pedigree, it wasn't noticed as much. Many of their feature films between the 1930's and 1980's re-work key sequences. Watch the below and see if you can keep track as to how many references there are! A couple of scenes meant to be homages are mistakenly included, but these clips seem to contain the most genuine footage in the shortest period of time.

And then there's the most recycled cartoon product ever conceived - 1967's Spider-Man by Grantray-Lawrence, and then later Ralph Bakshi's Spider-Man by Krantz Films. The TV show started with many recycled stock shots of Spidey swinging through the city. But by the time Bakshi took over with a dramatically reduced budget (slashed from an already dramatically reduced budget), suddenly entire episodes were being reused, which you may remember me blathering about last year.

And if that wasn't cost-effective enough, Krantz also took entire episodes of another one of their series, Rocket Robin Hood, and turned them into episodes of Spider-Man, with barely any differences whatsoever! Rocket Robin Hood's 'From Menace To Menace' was turned into Spider-Man's 'Phantom From The Depths Of Time', and Rocket Robin Hood's 'Dementia Five' is now more widely known as a cult classic episode of Spider-Man called 'Revolt In The Fifth Dimension'.

I mean, didn't it seem weird when you were a kid that this masked teenager was suddenly able to travel through time and space on a rocket ship? Whollopin' websnappers, were we ever gullible!

And if that wasn't enough of an insult, also consider they had the audacity to include a CLIP SHOW! THE WHOLE SERIES WAS BASICALLY A CLIP SHOW!!! But at the end of Spidey's third season (the last episode of the original series), they actually did an episode with flashbacks to previous episodes.

This year, I nominate Ralph Bakshi for Earth Day Ambassador! (note to self: try and search out photos of Bakshi where he isn't smoking)

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Saturday Morning Cartoons - The Bruce Timm Rises

It was like Bat-Christmas this week (Bat-mas?), when a brand new Bruce Timm-directed Batman short was aired on Cartoon Network called 'Strange Days'. Released in celebration of 75 Years Of Batman, this 3-minute cartoon from the co-creator of the retro-styled Batman: The Animated Series, throws it back even further with 1940's inspired action featuring one of Batman's oldest villains, Dr. Hugo Strange.

'Strange Days' is a Bat-geek's Bat-dream. For one thing, it features a brief return of a fan-favourite, which we'll get into below. Secondly, nobody directs Batman like Bruce Timm. Stylish, funny, frightening, true-to-form - his work on the Caped Crusader crushes the competition, including every live-action incarnation ever made. It's because he maintains the spirit of the comic book throughout while keeping it current. Some of the best episodes of Batman: The Animated Series are his, including 'The Laughing Fish', 'The Dark Knight's First Night' and 'Heart Of Ice'. He's also illustrated brilliant Batman one-offs and comic books like the excellent "Mad Love"

But let's go back to this new extremely short short for a second...

'Strange Days' is actually based on a comic book back-story from the very first issue of Batman, in which Dr. Hugo Strange made his second appearance. (his first being in Detective Comics)  In "The Giants Of Dr. Hugo Strange", asylum patients are kidnapped and turned into monsters who attack Gotham City. Batman is of course forced to take action and try to stop them. 

As you can see, the monster from the first comic book panel looks strikingly familiar to the one seen in 'Strange Days'

In the comic, Batman is captured and creates a serum to help cure the monsters. (even though he ends up murdering many of them)  In Bruce Timm's short, there is less time for exposition, and Batman just combats the monsters with good ol' fashioned ass-kickery and heavy artillery.

The heavy artillery is a throwback to the comic story, which also showcases Batman's piloting skills. In the comic, he uses real bullets. In the cartoon, he shoots tear gas. (presumably for the safety of the femme fatale) 

Later in the comic version of the story, Batman uses his Bat-Jet for far less heroic means than in the cartoon, including a good ol' fashioned hangin'. (!)

When it comes to the defeat of Dr. Hugo Strange, he meets a watery demise in both versions. In the comic, he's put through a window and disposed of pretty early in the story. 

In the cartoon, his death is more accidental.

This isn't the first time Bruce Timm has incorporated Hugo Strange into his cartoons. In Batman: The Animated Series, Hugo was featured in Season 1's 'The Strange Secret of Bruce Wayne'. 

He also made a brief cameo in an episode of Justice League Unlimited called 'The Doomsday Sanction'. 

But this is the first time Hugo's been featured in his more natural, 1940's environment. Even Batman has been redesigned ever-so-slightly to resemble more of the original creation.

"I wanted to make the whole cartoon look as if it was like the cartoon itself was made in 1939," Timm said in an interview with Comics Alliance. "Got stuck in a vault somewhere, and nobody has seen it until now. Not that I thought we were going to pull that kind of hoax, but that was the feel I wanted. I wanted it to be so authentically old school. I went back and looked at those early Bob Kane comics and even though they're really super crude, there's something really cool about the way Batman looks in those comics. He's got the really long ears, they kind of stick out in an inverted "A" shape, or in a "V" shape, on the top of his head because they kind of stick out on an angle. They're really tall. He's got tiny eyes, his trunks are long, his boots are long, he has short little gloves. I tried to incorporate as much of that in there as possible."

Timm also revealed why his new (and preferred) treatment of the character could have affected the film's running time.

"I have this idea in my head that it would be kind of neat to play Batman not so much as a human being, but almost as a force of nature," he said. "Like, he's so focused on his mission that he doesn't make chit chat. He's not friendly. He doesn't make jokes. He only talks when he absolutely has to do so to further his war on crime.

"Obviously you couldn't do that as a series. It's really hard to empathize with a character who is that remote. But I thought I could do it as a short, and fortunately for me, Cartoon Network was doing these DC Nation shorts. My good buddy Peter Girardi is in charge of development for the DC Nation shorts, and I pitched the idea to him and he said, "that sounds great". We were off to the races." 

In many ways, this could be Bruce Timm's purest form of Batman ever produced, if the origins are any indication.

"I was at the premiere of The Dark Knight Returns: Part 2 at the Paley Center," he recalls. "One of the reports there asked me, of all the different versions of Batman that I've worked on, through all the DVDs and the series and stuff, which one was my favourite. I said of course, it's the original Batman: The Animated Series, because that's the closest to my own personal vision of Batman. Then I got to thinking, well, you know, even Batman: The Animated Series was not 100% exactly what I would do with Batman if I was "boss of the world" and didn't have to take into account economics or TV executives.

"For example, the look of the show is famously very retro. But if I had my way, I would have made the show a real period piece. I would have set it absolutely in 1939. With 1939 technology, clothes and everything. Not just somewhat retro-styled. That made me think, hey, if I was going to do it in 1939, then that means it would be in black-and-white." 

When asked about voice actors, Timm gave hope that this wouldn't be the last we'd see of Batman, as he sees it. 

Comics Alliance: "Is Kevin Conroy the voice of Batman in this short?"

Bruce: "Yes. He is. It's funny - he's got one line of dialogue."

Comics Alliance: "Wow." 

Bruce: "It's 2 words. He got a very good payday that day for word-to-dollar ratio!"

Comics Alliance: "Did he know that going in? Did he just show up and say, "I've got 2 words?'"

Bruce: "Honestly, we took advantage of Screen Actor Guild rules and recorded another short with him on the same day."

Comics Alliance: "Does that mean there's more coming from you and/or Kevin?" 

Bruce: "Ummmmm...can't say."

HA! Unlike Batman, Bruce Timm has said too much! And I couldn't be happier to hear it! 

PS: Bat-thanks to Jesse Haller for the comic book scans I stole.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Intro To Traditional Animated Theory In Community

Community is a great friend to comedy and cartoons in general. Once every season, this outstanding NBC sitcom does a "special" episode where the characters are taken from their natural live-action school surroundings and plopped into a meta world of significant pop culture points of interest.

In Season 2, they were stop-motion animated in the style of classic Rankin-Bass holiday specials in 'Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas'.

As you'll learn in the accompanying behind-the-scenes segment, these special episodes have a huge supporter in Dino Stamatopoulis. Dino not only portrays Starburns on the show, but is a driving creative force in the show's production. Thanks to Dino's involvement in other stop-motion series like Moral Orel, they were able to find a great director for that first holiday special. And with Dan Harmon's sense of tone, in a nod to Charles Schulz, it certainly helped to set the show apart from other standard holiday fare.

Continuing this trend in later seasons, the cast of Community was also turned into anime...

8 bit characters...

And puppets...

But perhaps their greatest experiment (so far) was Thursday night's 'G.I. Jeff', written by Dino Stamatopoulis.

The great thing about Community is that it while it's constantly geeking out, it never loses sight of the reality that it's based in. They can give you a spot-on G.I. Joe parody, but still provide a reason to do so. It all fits into the storyline somehow. This is the stroke of uncanny genius that Dan Harmon and the original show-runners (who were absent in the dismal 4th season) are somehow able to weave into each and every episode. They can delve into Dungeons & Dragons, spade The Secret Garden, practice Nicolas Cage impersonations for nearly 22 minutes - but still maintain character and heart.

Let's quickly discuss the balancing act of 'G.I. Jeff'. On the surface, it's a spot-on parody of Sunbow's G.I. Joe series, which ran from 1983-1986. Everything is lovingly re-created - the herky-jerky animation style, the purposeful insertion of grit and colour-fading overlaid throughout, the fake toy commercials leading out of actual commercial breaks. And my favourite bit of all, which brought memories of my critical childhood flooding back - the occasionally terrible lip sync.

The most amazing thing in my mind about this is how official everything is. The G.I. Joe logo is used everywhere, as is the theme song, the sound effects, and some of the original characters. Hasbro, the toy company who reaped the benefits of G.I. Joe for many years, and continues to do so, seems to have been a great sport about Community poking fun at one of its biggest flagships.

"More power to them, because they were very, very gracious with their product", said creator Dan Harmon. "That's really cool too, because you're accustomed in TV that if someone pulls out a Snickers bar, it always says 'Snookers'. So the weird thing is that when you see actual branding like that, it hits your brain like it's revolutionary. Which is dumb, because why should that be?"

It IS dumb, but that's the first thing that struck me. Honestly, if some of these commercials existed in the 80's, I wouldn't have even known it was a joke.

'G.I. Jeff' even makes use of some of the original G.I. Joe voice-cast.

"I went into the VO booth," said creator Dan Harmon, "and the guy that played Flint (Bill Ratner), I didn't even know he was coming in that day and I was getting a NutriBar, and I just heard Flint! 'Get over there! Get to your battle stations!', and I was like, 'Oh my God! Flint is here!'"

Admittedly, this isn't the first time that the voice of Flint was brought back for a cartoon. Family Guy and Robot Chicken did it first, but in far less clever ways.

Not all of the original voice-cast is present in 'G.I. Jeff'. Obviously, the voice of Cobra Commander is an impersonator. Original actor, Chris Latta (who also portrayed Starscream in Transformers) passed away back in 1994. 

The theme song is also sung by a pretty damn good impersonator. In fact, this same impersonator sang an alternate version of the theme song, dedicated to G.I. Jeff's director, Rob Schrab. (click the photo below to hear it)

I feel sorry for Rob Schrab. Apparently, he was stressed and under immense pressure to deliver this, as evidenced by a few of his tweets...

Hopefully, Rob Schrab is still alive. His name sounded familiar when I saw his name on the credits, and I couldn't put my finger on it at the time. But then I saw this...

Rob is the creator of a great comic book called Scud The Disposable Assassin, which I read in the early 90's. Scud made a guest appearance in this background scene. You can also apparently see an issue of Scud in the episode, 'Advanced Dungeons & Dragons'.

Despite what the above tweets would lead you to believe, Rob and Dan are actually good friends. Here's a great piece that Rob did when Dan was fired from Community after Season 3, which was a parody of a famous tribute made after Mel Blanc passed away.

I'm realizing now that if you've never watched Community, this is probably a pretty inaccessible post. But if that's the case, I hope you'll still give Community a chance. I doubt it'll make it to #SixSeasonsAndAMovie, but with your support it could be 0.00000000000000000000001% of a Nielsen rating closer. I'd love to see what kind of cartoon they could skewer next year.

If you'd like to know more about the making of Community's 'G.I. Jeff' episode, there's a brief making-of vignette below. If you don't want to know anymore, that's cool too - but remember, knowing is half the battle.