Another Visit to Pixar

On Saturday night, San Francisco’s Cartoon Art Museum held a benefit at Pixar in Emeryville. (This was the third such event; I wrote about an earlier one here.)
Once again, I was in attendance–and once again, I had a good time.

This one was a bit different than its predecessors. The last Pixar night was held shortly before The Incredibles premiered, and was in part a preview of that film. This time, we got to see a brief trailer for John Lasseter’s Cars, but that was it as far as stuff relating to the next Pixar feature went. (The art show from Incredibles which we saw last time was still up.)

I don’t think this was entirely because the studio doesn’t want to talk about Cars yet, since I’ve been to two public events (the less-than-spectacular Wondercon panel mentioned by Mike Barrier in a recent post, and an earlier session at an illustration conference, which dug into the film in some detail).

Unlike the earlier benefits, the bulk of last night’s presentation was done by one guy–Michael Johnson, a Pixar technical guy who’s also a board member at the museum. That was fine; he did a great job, giving a talk that was about both Pixar’s film-making process and its perspective on the world.

He began by stating three Pixar rules of success:

1. Casting, casting, casting. (ie, nothing is more important than the team you hire)

2. Hire people smarter than yourself.

3. Art as a team sport. (“51 percent is plays well with others.”)

One interesting thing about these three rules: They’re really one rule, since they could be summed up in one four-word one, namely Hire a smart team. Which sure seems to work for Pixar, and which is souund advice for any sort of creative or corporate endeavor.

Johnson showed some good clips as part of his talk, including several minutes of Andrew Stanton pitching Finding Nemo. (He was fabulous, and watching him in action made me wish that footage survived of Walt Disney in action during 1930s story conferences).

Brad Bird did about 3,000 drawings simply while reviewing work on The Incredibles (sketching with an electronic pen on top of CGI frames), said Johnson; he showed us a rapid-fire selection of those quick Bird drawings.

Other tidbits:

* Johnson said that all Pixar productions begin as 2D ideas. Some of the artists who work on ideas like to use real-world art materials; others work digitally, using Wacom’s Cintiq tablets. That’s fine: “We take no position on paper.”

* He showed a great little film about all the work that went into giving The Incredibles‘ Violet plausible long hair. It had never been done before and was a huge technical challenge: “Violet’s hair brought this production to its knees.”

* The DVD editions of Pixar movies are produced at the same time as theater ones, and are actually separate renderings composed for a TV’s aspect ratio. “We do it because we can.”

* Random quote: “We don’t want real-looking humans–they’re kind of creepy…reality is just a useful measure of complexity.”

* Another random quote: Effects animators “animate what the animators don’t want to animate.”

* Brad Bird and Andrew Stanton like to work with a traditional movie script; “John Lasseter, not so much.”

After Johnson’s talk, we saw One Man Band, the new Pixar short which will run with Cars. It’s fun and funny, with a storybook-like look that’s quite different from other Pixar work–and has, in a little girl character, one of the best actors ever to appear in CGI. Like all Pixar films, it also has sound that’s as rich, clever, and carefully thought-out as the visuals.

We then heard from co-director Mark Andrews and animator Angus McLane, and then we saw the short again.

One notable Pixar issue barely came up during the formal presentation: the little fact that it’s being acquired by Disney. But the evening ended with the Pixar staffers hobnobbing with attendees, and many of the questions focused on the merger.

Johnson said Pixar does want to make some sequels to its films, and that the studio, which is still a fairly small operation, will likely grow. He said he’s having fun talking to counterparts at Disney; Pixar is by necessity a secretive place, and he thinks it’ll be nice to have more colleagues to discuss things with. (But just how much sharing of technical know-how between Pixar and Disney will happen is yet to be determined, he said.)

(Side note on Pixar secrecy: Before we were ushered into the studio’s theater, we were wanded…and a guard examined my pen, presumably to make sure it wasn’t some sort of spy device.)

He said that Ed Catmull and John Lasseter have no plans to leave Northern California, but will likely spend a couple of days a week in LA. He also said that he fully expects to be at Pixar ten or twenty years from now: “As long as this place stays the same, this is where we want to be.”

If there’s another Cartoon Art Museum benefit, it’ll presumably be at a Pixar that’s an arm of Disney. I sure hope that there is another benefit, and that I get to go to it–and that the place still feels like Pixar. Much more important, I hope that the studio remains a place where people like Michael Johnson want to work for twenty years–and beyond. Time will tell…

Fleischer’s Famous Foods

When I wrote of a Fleischer-themed restaurant with a giant Betty Boop on its sign, some accused me of making it all up. Actually, I was completely accurate, just off by 69 years and 3,000 miles.

When I was in Union Square here in SF this evening, I discovered that a restaurant called Betty Boop’s Diner is set to open shortly. (It looks like it might be part of a chain, but if there are other locations, it’s news to me; it is, however, a stone’s throw from a place called Blondie’s Pizza.)

I shall eat there as soon as possible–and report back here.

Winsor McCay, Tobacco Advocate

In 1930, the aging Winsor McCay did a Lucky Strikes ad (which I just found in an issue of the old, original Life magazine). The gist: Up until then, there’d been an ancient and irriational prejudice against cigarettes, which Lucky had just eradicated forever by removing harmful irritants. (Thank goodness!)

Winsor’s cartoon makes no direct reference to smokes–there’s a complex metaphor going on, with the mighty fist of American intelligence smashing a miser’s fear of banks and making possible a large, well-guarded financial institution. Apparently, the ancient prejudice against cigarettes was as out of date as the ancient prejudice against banks. Or something like that.

(You’ll notice, however, that Winsor didn’t let Nemo and Gertie smoke.)

Here’s the ad, and a sideways version of the McCay drawing so you can see all the detail:


winsor sideways.jpg

Mickey Meets the Future Queen

How about some 1930s book art featuring cartoon characters other than Oswald the Lucky Rabbit? I recently picked up a copy of The Princess Elizabeth Gift Book, a 1935 tie-in with the Princess Elizabeth of York Hospital for Children. What it is, essentially, is an anthology of children’s stories, many of them by well-known authors and others featuring popular comics and cartoon characters of the day, such as Rupert Bear, Teddy Tail, Pip, Squeak and Wilfred, and…Mickey Mouse and friends.

It’s the product of an interesting moment in time when Princess Elizabeth of York was a young celebrity but it didn’t yet occur to anyone she’d become Queen of England someday; when Rudyard Kipling and J.M. Barrie were still alive and writing and thefore able to contribute to a book that also included work from a studio which would bastardize their stories years later; and when the British had adopted Mickey Mouse as one of their own.

The start and end of the book have color spreads of the Disney gang attending a “party” in celebration of the hospital that are two of the nicest pieces of illustration of them I’ve ever seen. (David Gerstein, if you’re reading this, are these by Wilfred Haughton?) Here they are:



The Secret Origin of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit

Stop the presses! All these stories saying that the Walt Disney Company is reacquiring Oswald the Rabbit are mistaken. Walt didn’t have a thing to do with Oswald’s rise to fame in the first place–he was at Universal from the get-go. I know it’s true…I read it in a Big Little Book.

Here’s another Oswald Big Little Book–a 1934 one which I’ve owned for awhile but am only now examining carefully. That 1937 Oswald BLB claims that it’s by Walt Lantz; in 1934, however, Walt wasn’t worth mentioning anywhere in the book, which heavily associates Universal tycoon Carl Laemmle with the character. (Interesting evidence of the evolution of Walter Lantz as a Walt Disney-like marketable celebrity, or at least a would-be one.)

Oswald the Lucky Rabbit tells the story of Oswald’s rise to fame. He begins in New York in abject poverty; seeking fame, he drives–with an acquaintance named Daring Dan–to California, where he’s discovered by Carl Laemmle himself. (In this universe, Walt Disney, Charles Mintz, and Walter Lantz don’t even seem to exist.)

Oswald becomes a star; along the way, there’s a lot of violence, a cameo by Paul Whiteman (returning the favor Oswald did by appearing in King of Jazz), some bondage and bestiality, and among the worst art I’ve ever seen of a semi-major comics character. Note the close-up below in which the artist has forgotten to give Oswald a nose.

The whole thing reads and looks as if it were put together by a demented fifth-grade student. (And it leaves you newly appreciative of the quality control imposed by Disney on side projects in the 1930s–Floyd Gottfredson this guy is not.)






The Secret Origin of Woody Woodpecker

I spent much of yesterday at WonderCon, the San Francisco comics event which has become sort of a junior-sized San Diego Comics Con. While there, I picked up a cheap copy of Oswald Rabbit Plays G Man, a 1937 Big Little Book. (It’s missing its first 17 pages, but hey, it’s only going to increase in value–it’s a Disney collectible now.)

The book is illustrated with stills from Lantz cartoons–and I was startled to discover that a large chunk of them feature…Woody Woodpecker.

Well, a character named Woody Woodpecker, at least–this Woody doesn’t look much like the one in 1940’s Knock Knock, and he’s a heavy–he spends much of the book’s narrative terrifying Oswald and bullying a community of insects led by a fairy queen. (Oswald, meanwhile, spends very little time playing G Man: The author of the book had to string together the plotlines of multiple cartoons into something approximating a storyline.)

David Gerstein has identified these scenes as probably originating in the 1936 Oswald cartoon Night Life of the Bugs. Has anyone seen this? Is the character called Woody in the short itself? Should we revise history and come to the conclusion that Woody Woodpecker didn’t first show up in Knock Knock, or is this just an entirely different woodpecker who happens to be named Woody? Let the debate begin…



Rabbit Transit


I’m not sure if this is one of the greatest days in the history of the Disney studio, but it surely rates as…well, one of the most delightful. If you didn’t grin from ear to ear when you heard the news, you’re not really an animation fan. (This was a moment that wanted to be shared–I got three instant e-mails from friends about it before I was able to read the news on the Web…compared to zero e-mails about the Pixar buyout.)

In his short tenure as CEO, Bob Iger has made John Lasseter the creative head of all of Disney animation and righted the wrong that Charlie Mintz wrought almost eighty years ago; so far, the guy is 2-0 when it comes to amazing, historic moves involving Disney animation’s past, present, and future. I’m not sure what he can possibly do now to top himself.

(Well, actually, I do know: He can preside over a studio that makes a bunch of inventive, entertaining animated films. And I’m feeling hopeful that he will.)

A few pressing questions:

How did this come about? Who wanted Oswald? How did Al Michaels get involved? Has anyone at Disney been stewing for decades over this? Who do you talk to at Universal when you want to get a character back that Universal has probably forgotten it owns?

Did Disney ever try to get Oswald back before? Did the idea ever cross Walt’s mind? Did he grit his teeth whenever he saw Walt Lantz, or just not care? More recently, did Michael Eisner even know who Ozzie was?

Now that Oswald is home, what will Disney do with him?
Simply continue to sell merchandise in Japan? Release DVDs? Make new films? Add a character to Disneyland? In short, is there a rational business strategy behind this wonderfully quixotic move?

Will Oswald meet Mickey? Wouldn’t that be historic?

What happens to all the Universal Oswald films? Can Disney distribute them? Can Universal? Will Disney hide the fact that Oswald became a bland white bunny and a third-tier comio-book character?

Who owns Floyd and Lloyd, Oswald’s sons? Are they now orphaned? Will Disney need to trade two more sportcasters to NBC to get them?

Will this set off an array of character-trading in Hollywood? Disney isn’t doing much with Ludwig Von Drake–maybe Cartoon Network would like to have him?

Or, better yet, a revival of interest in vintage characters in general? Maybe this will be the kick in the pants that Sony needed to give Scrappy the respect he’s due. We can only hope…