Thursday, February 21, 2008

Everything Old Is New Again...Or Something Like That

I've been watching a lot of Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies Cartoons lately. One in particular sparked a weird parallel in my mind between the cartoon shorts of the 1920's/1930's and today's feature-length computer animated films. The short in question is the Hugh Harmon-Rudolph Ising produced It's Got Me Again (1932 - on Disc 2 of Looney Tunes Golden Collection: Volume 3).

As the short begins, a mouse emerges from the now stereotypical arch hole in the baseboard to the metronome rhythm of a grandfather clock. The mouse bears a striking resemblance to Mickey Mouse, which was not unusual at this time. Isadore 'Friz' Freleng - according to the limited credits - handled half of the animation and was previously a Disney employee. So were Hugh Harmon and Rudolph Ising. As a result, in this and other non-Disney cartoons during this period, redundancy in character design was common. [Also interesting to note is, one-minute and twenty-three seconds into the short, the Mickey clone even speaks in a Mickey-like falsetto.]

Those were the early days of animation when everybody was either learning (and in some cases, inventing) the art form or looking to make a quick buck (Leon Schlesinger being a famous example) or both.

But what's the excuse of today's media-conglomerate-owned, studio-subsidiary, computer animation filmmakers? Why are the CG films currently being made almost indistinguishable from one another at quick glance?

If you use Toy Story as the marker of the dawn of the feature-length, computer animated film, more questions arise. Like why is it, that thirteen years later we still essentially have a single "house style," consisting largely of oversized taxidermy eyes and shared by practically all major studios? Is this really part of some long learning curve? Perhaps a bizarre limitation of the medium? Or are the filmmakers simply victims of their corporate parent asking for 'another (fill-in-the-blank with a known film property)'? Or could it be a heavy cross-pollination of animation professionals throughout the industry bringing with them established design sensibilities?

I guess it could be said that characters like Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, et al all shared/share some similar design features (again, largely eyes - vertical ovals - and gloves) even after their personalities had evolved. But that's exactly what separated them in the end: personality; And often in spite of the fact that many were voiced by individual, elastically-talented voice-over artists (especially in Warner cartoons). Today, if a celebrity like Robin Williams gets voice-over work it's Robin Williams doing the voice. There's no distinction between FernGully's Batty Koda, Aladdin's Genie and Happy Feet's Ramon and Lovelace. It should be noted that Pixar did try to draw a distinction between their product and some of the current CG saturation (especially motion capture) during Ratatouille's credits:

In the end though, maybe everything in life really is cyclical.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

I Tawt I Taw...A Yogurt Ad?

I've been meaning to post these images - and given Coke's Super Bowl Ad, it seems like a perfect time to do so. They are from a billboard in the Times Square area for Fage Yogurt. I'm assuming it's been up since the fall - I, myself only noticed it for the first time about two weeks ago.

It's situated along the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade route, a little more than half way before the parade's finish line downtown. It's exact location is atop
1623 Broadway, between 
West 49th and West 50th Streets. The character balloon embedded in the yogurt bears an uncanny resemblance to a certain Warner Bros. canary. Makes you wonder what the cat did to create this situation?

It's a great ad in the tradition of Times Square "spectaculars;" Probably would have been just a little better if there was a huge, three-dimensional cup or tub of yogurt to clarify what's being advertised (the large white space and balloon distract from the almost-invisible-from-street-level yogurt tub illustration and tag line). I only say this because the brand doesn't exactly have the name recognition of say, Dannon and according to Fage's website, the company "...was established in June 2000 in the state of New York." Now that I know what they're selling, I'll be a little more aware of their product in supermarket refrigeration cases.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

"It's Mine"

I love this commercial so much that I could end this posting here - but I won't because there is just so much that was done right with the production of it. As usual, it involves three things I'm extremely passionate about: New York City, Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and cartoon characters.

In a previous posting, I made clear what I believed to be some of the biggest problems with CG animation and effects.  So much of what's currently produced in CG looks plastic-y. It's either a limitation of the art form or purely a budgetary concern.  Whatever the reason, some art directors and directors have wisely used it to their advantage while a lot of others have apparently tried pushing the envelope of realism and have fallen short. 

"It's Mine,"  the title of this Coke commercial, features some of what I believe to be the attributes of CG. For me, it's effectiveness and believability, begins with it's application: inanimate objects. It's the reason why Toy Story worked so well thirteen years ago. And despite the fact that this spot's antagonists are "sculpted" versions of their animated counterparts, it features very subtle, "wind-induced" acting. There is a little cheating evident in the fourth shot, where Stewie's head turns (somewhat independent of the rest of his body) toward the Coke Balloon followed by Underdog with a similar gesture in the fifth shot, but that's minor and works in favor of the story. The often weightlessness of CG benefits the characters here in their inflatable state. 

Incidental effects, like light reflection and sun glare on the balloons are practically flawless. Details like shadows cast from Central Park West trees onto the balloons, shadows from the balloons cast against buildings and, notably, a reflection on a cab windshield in the twenty-second shot are masterfully executed and ground-in-reality the world created in the commercial.

According to Duncan's TV Ad Land, cinematography was handled by Ellen Kuras. I've seen her work previously in Spike Lee's Summer of Sam, a truly underrated and overlooked film in terms of both visual style and performance [I'll add that I'm a bit biased because I live in the neighborhood where it was filmed]. In "It's Mine," Ms. Kuras manages to capture the majesty of an early Manhattan morning in the fall. The light, color and feel (minus the brisk chill in the air) are as accurate as anything I can remember experiencing on a November morning, maybe more-so thanks to the spot's idealized color-styling. 

My only on-going pet-peeve about anything filmed in New York appears in the third shot. While that particular shot appears to have been filmed somewhere in streets of the Upper West Side, it seems inconsistent with the accuracy of parade locations used for shots one, two, four and five. I recognize that certain factors can come into play with stuff like this, like impact on traffic patterns during desired filming times, residential noise-impact, area street construction, finding a location that works for the shot's composition, etc. However, given the amazing effect of the commercial I'm not going to nit-pick.

Character selections are diverse and, barring another Cartoon All-Stars To The Rescue special, unlikely to be seen on-screen together again. The spot's agency, Wieden+Kennedy, appears to have had an awareness of the popularity of the 1970's-1980's Underdog balloon, which makes his selection obvious. Stewie, I assume, appears because the Super Bowl was on Fox this year and Charlie Brown's plot angle pleasantly respects the unresolved Charles Schulz running gag while vindicating him in an entirely different manner. 

It's interesting that the commercial received approval from Macy's in the form of their signature star balloons (complete with logo) whereas, in the 1994 remake of Miracle on 34th Street, the film's department store became the fictional Cole's. It's also interesting to point out that it's probably unlikely Stewie would appear in future parades due to Family Guy's high adult content and a statement on the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade website's Marketing and Promotion page, which reads in part: "Our theme each year is 'Holiday Entertainment For Children Everywhere.' Therefore, it is important to Macy's that our corporate partners complement that image..."

Special mentions go to the ancillary gags featuring the arguing couple distracted by Underdog and Stewie's own battle outside their window and the little girl in the blue overcoat holding the football (ala Lucy) prior to Charlie Brown's triumphant interception of the Coke.  

Finally, in this most New York-themed of blog posts, I'll send a shout-out to The Bronx's most famous Wisconsinite, Kevin S. There, are you happy now? At least I don't have to avoid eye-contact with you in the halls and elevator at work anymore.