"Get a good idea, and stay with it. Dog it, and work at it until it's done, and done right." - Walt Disney

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Art from an Ill-Fated Teddy Ruxpin Feature

Come dream with me tonight...

Children of the 1980's may recall the famous words above by the once popular talking plush bear, Teddy Ruxpin.  For those of you who are too young, or perhaps too old, a simple search of Teddy Ruxpin on Wikipedia or YouTube will give you all the information you've ever wanted (or not wanted).  I was one of those children of the 80's, and my love for my Teddy Ruxpin plush (who I still have) was rekindled after an interview with retired animation layout artist, David High. 

High was not only a concept designer on all 65 episodes of The Adventures of Teddy Ruxpin animated series (1987), but acted as art director on many of the original Teddy Ruxpin books as well.  The Ruxpin plush toy was animatronic, and when activated, read stories to its young owners.  A cassette deck was housed in the doll's back, and for each cassette that was produced a corresponding hardback, illustrated storybook was included.  In fact, the map of Grundo (the land where Teddy Ruxpin lives) found on the end pages of the books was designed by David High himself.  High worked closely on the books with the late Teddy Ruxpin creator, Ken Forsse (1936-2014). 

High then shared with me:
...We were going to be doing a feature film and it was gonna be traditional, full animation with the characters with a CGI background, which had really never been done at the time.  And, so I put together a Leica reel…to try to...build money up to do the project, and which it never really happened. 
High's reference to a Leica reel may need clarification.  A Leica reel, as described by author Christopher Finch in his The Art of Walt Disney, "provided a way of projecting story continuity drawings in synchronization with whatever part of the sound track had been prerecorded, thus giving at least a rough idea of how the final movie might look and sound."

High was tasked with the creation of art for the Leica reel for the ill-fated Teddy Ruxpin feature film.  Although the film was never produced, and the Teddy Ruxpin phenomena died with the 1980's, samples of High's art for the original Leica reel survives here thanks to the generosity of the artist himself.

Click on each image to enlarge.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Moldy Fig, Anyone?

Through the course of my research on animation background and layout artists, I was introduced to the term "moldy fig."  It was first offered to me during a brief phone call with Joseph De Meis.  De Meis' career in theme park art direction and design goes as far back as WED (now Walt Disney Imagineering) in 1969.  I mentioned to De Meis my research concerning the late background artist, Ron Dias (whom I'm planning to a write a biography about), and informed him of my recent interview with layout artist, Michael Hodgson.  De Meis didn't know much about Dias, but he told me to mention "moldy fig" to Michael Hodgson the next time I talk with him.

And so I did.

The term "moldy fig" - originally - refers to someone who is a purist of early jazz music.  However, the term somehow became loosely associated with animation according to artists I've talked to. When I asked retired layout artist, Michael Hodgson, about the term, he shared:
'Moldy fig' is...kind of that fat, worn, old look that Disney really captured in, well, Pinocchio (1940) would be the best example.  You know, the barrels were a little thicker and the tables were very fat and worn and stuff like that.  
Hodgson was unsure of the origin of the term concerning animation, or how well-spread it became, but knows that artists did use it.  He incorportated the 'moldy fig' style in his layout art for The Black Cauldron (1985) and in his personal pencil renderings of the past and present.

In my recent interview with animation and comic artist, Bruce Zick, I asked him about "moldy fig" and he responded, "Oh!  I haven't heard that in a long time...it's a sort of 'gingerbready' type of [style]...it's almost like a Pinocchio, Gustaf Tenggren kind of way of approaching it [layout and background styles]."

To get a real feel for the "moldy fig" style these artists were trying to describe, check out the art below from Pinocchio and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).  Observe the thick wooded furniture and architecture of the locales from the two classic films, and ask yourself, "Am I a 'moldy fig' fan?"

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Happy Birthday, Dino!!!

Fourteen years ago this month, my dad and I embarked on a journey that we never imagined we'd go on...

From the time I could crawl, my dad had "oldies" music playing in the background.  He played everything from Al Jolson to the Bee-Gees!  Classic cartoons often incorporated standards of the time, and my subconscious ate up each catchy melody.  Needless to say, I was born and bred on music of the past, and enjoy it very much today.

In high school, I discovered Dean Martin one night while watching a PBS special.  That's Amore (1999) was the title, and it featured clips from The Dean Martin Variety Show (1965-1974).  Rather than highlighting Martin's pratfalls, corny jokes, and his convincing portrayal as a drunk (which he was not), this special highlighted solo performances of his singing.  I remember being taken by Martin's energy and genuine sincerity as he sang.  He personified the ultimate crooner, but he was just so much damn cooler than the rest.  That Christmas, I found his greatest hits in our tree and have been listening to it ever since.

My parents obviously knew who Dean Martin was, but I'd like to think it was me who reintroduced Martin to them, and in turn, they found something in his onscreen presence that they never experienced before.  I went off to college and made no secret about my musical tastes.  I even got my roommate, Chod, into it, and that music laid the foundation for some incredible memories.  In fact, I was ballsy enough to hang this poster in our dormroom:

In the spring of 2003, my dad and I found out about an annual Dean Martin festival that was being held that June in Martin's hometown of Steubenville, Ohio.  Without batting an eye, we made reservations and hitched a ride west from outside Philadelphia on a Greyhound.  

Our favorite - and first memory - of that trip was that of our cab driver (I take that back, riding on a Greyhound bus is a memory in of itself).  The driver's nickname was "Crazy Horse," and let me tell you, he lived up to his name.  The stories he told of the West Virginian locals (Steubenville, Ohio is right near the intersection of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia) was enough to fill a book.  But he was our chauffeur, and he was at our beck and call whenever we needed him!

The festival itself wasn't anything to write home about; it was the history of the town, the people, and everyone's love for Dean Martin that drew us there.  I remember there was a false fire alarm in an apartment building on the main strip.  The firefighter got down from his ladder and blamed Martin's ghost for the prank.  When you walk the town, it looks like something out of Twin Peaks, and the remnance of its mining industry in the chiseled faces of the surrounding cliffs was palpable.  But there was a magic to it all, because it was Martin's hometown, and we were all there for a common reason.

Mural of Dean Martin on the side of a grocery store in Steubenville, Ohio.
We ate at restaurants, watched Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra impersonators, attended a live auction of genuine Dean Martin artifacts, visited the plot of land his home was on, and cheered at the town parade.  For me, it was an age of innocence that swept me back to a time that I always felt I missed out on.  One of the neatest experiences was visiting Steubenville's Historical Society, and running into Dean Martin's daughter, Deana - the grand marshal of the festivities.  What an experience!  I even had the chance to ask her a question at a Q&A later that day.  I asked, "How did your father react to his knocking the Beatles off the #1 spot in 1964 with 'Everybody Loves Somebody?'"  Her response, "He came home with such a 'big head' that we told him he'd never get out of his car."

My dad, Mel, Deana Martin, and me at the Steubenville Historical Society.
In all, it's a time I'll never forget with my father.  We talk about it still, and with Father's Day looming around the corner, and today being Dean Martin's 100th birthday, what better thing to write about than this journey I shared together with my dad.

We thank you, Dino, and wish you a Happy Birthday!!!

Me with Dean Martin impersonator, Tom Stevens.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Lion King Story Sketches

There are many layers to the production process of an animated movie.  It's not as simple as coming up with a story and committing drawings to paper.  It's a well thought out process; a process that involves hundreds of individuals.

One layer of the process is coming up with a solid story.  The story process itself can be broken down into several layers; one being story sketches.  For this post's purpose, let's take story artist, Thom Enriquez.  Enriquez has contributed to story elements on many of our favorite films, such as: The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), Hercules (1997), Mulan (1998), and How to Train Your Dragon (2010); just to name a few.  Mr. Enriquez's impressive conceptual art for Ghostbusters (1984) was prominently presented in Ghostbusters:  The Ultimate Visual History by Daniel Wallace in 2015 (highly recommended!). 

I had the privilege of interviewing Mr. Enriquez via phone from his Californian home this past week.  He talked a lot about his story contributions to The Lion King (1994).  A few days later, he followed up with an email to me that included three original story sketches he did for the film.  These sketches preceded the animation of characters.  They represent the visual elements of sequences for The Lion King in their earliest forms.  They are presented below with Enriquez's original captions intact. 

"Simba and Nala heading for the elephant graveyard."

"Scar manipulating Simba into the gorge."

"Hyenas waiting for Scars [sic] signal."

Friday, June 2, 2017

Adventures in Music and Limited Animation

Anyone who is keen on animated art certainly connects the use of limited animation with the cartoons produced by United Productions of America, better known as UPA.  For those not familiar with the term “limited animation,” it's essentially a unique form of animation that uses less drawings per frame of film.  When one watches a classic film like Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), they're viewing a film that is meticulous in movement and form, and very realistic (each second of film in Snow White amounted to 24 drawings!).  Limited animation relies on the repetition of drawings to create movement and the style is often abstract.  It's not to say that limited animation is a lesser form of art, in fact, some animators would argue that it allows for creativity that cannot be achieved in traditional animation.  UPA's 1950 animated short, Gerald McBoing-Boing is a prime example and can be viewed here:

Being more of a Disney enthusiast, I associate the beginnings of limited animation with the “Baby Weems”segment of the 1941 film, The Reluctant Dragon. 

Legendary Disney story men Joe Grant and Dick Huemer were responsible for bringing this exceptional little piece to life, and in it, the baby’s tale is mostly told with storyboard drawings rather than animation.  In an interview by Joe Adamson in the late sixties, Huemer is asked if he and Grant were fans of limited animation at the time.  Huemer responded, “Actually, Joe Grant and I invented it for ‘Baby Weems’…That was the first time that limited animation had been done.” 

One can only imagine what audiences thought of this new approach to Disney animation.  The late 30's and early 40's marked the Golden Age of the Walt Disney Studios, with the releases of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941), and Bambi (1942)Moviegoers were now accustomed to seeing beautiful and expressive animation, without single breaks in fluidity.  “Baby Weems” was just a drop in the bucket for limited animation at Disney’s, however, in 1953 the studio decided to produce two films that focused on the origins of music, while utilizing the limited animation approach.  As this posting will explain, this choice of style was more for economical reasons, however, the success of the second short initially caught everyone by surprise. 

Melody (1953) is the first of these two installments in the “Adventures in Music” series, and it brings together a solid cast of Disney artists and story men; especially under the direction of legendary animator, Ward Kimball.  In addition, Dick Huemer was invited back to the studio in 1951, after being bitterly cut three years prior, to work on the story for the first special short dealing with “Adventures in Music,” along with its follow-up, Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom (1953) (Canemaker, 1999).  Huemer shared in an interview with Don Peri, “I did the story on Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom, and I turned it over to Ward Kimball, who amplified what I gave him.  It was Ward Kimball’s baby then.  He greatly admired all that modern approach (Peri, 2008).”  The same was more than likely true for the initial cartoon as well.  In terms of the direction of art in these shorts, Disney could not have made two better choices. Color styles were managed by legendary artist Eyvind Earle, who would go on to implement his gothic style of art in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, and art direction was controlled by Ken O’Connor, who served as art director or layout man on thirteen features and nearly a hundred shorts (Smith, 2006).  The animators on these two cartoons included: Ward Kimball himself, the legendary Marc Davis, Julius Svendsen, Harvey Toombs, Hal Ambro, Marvin Woodward, Harry Tanous, Art Stevens, and future Imagineer, Xavier Atencio.

Looking back, Melody was actually the less successful of the two, however, it had one element that Toot did not have.  On May 28, 1953, Melody made its theatrical debut in 3D; the first cartoon of its kind in the U.S. (Smith, 2006). As I conducted research for Melody alone, I found limited information and interviews pertaining to it specifically.  More interest is aimed at Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom, especially since it earned the studio another Academy Award.  Despite this, Melody is a witty little film, full of slapstick and fun.  We are introduced to Professor Owl (voiced by Bill Thompson) and his flock of feathered pupils:  Bertie Birdbrain, The Canary Sisters, Suzy Sparrow, and Penelope Pinfeather (Grant, 1993).  The cartoon’s theme revolves around its title song, The Bird and the Cricket and the Willow Tree, which is presented in a variety of pleasant musical forms throughout the film.

Ward Kimball’s directorial touches are riddled with humor throughout this cartoon, especially where the areas of life, romance, and women are concerned.  At one point, Professor Owl presents the audience with the musical tones of a woman’s voice, and then other women chime in.  The musicality of their voices, however,  turns into a chorus of nagging and bickering that the Professor finally puts to an end after several attempts; the last being a poke with his pointer.  When it comes to Kimball’s view of romance in this short, it’s presented in class Kimball fashion.  As a man serenades his lover in one scene, beautiful hearts appear above, and a shotgun pans across the screen.  Quite the romantic!  Towards the middle, the meaning of life is addressed and takes a cynical and sarcastic turn as we follow the progression of a man’s life from birth to education, then marriage to raising children, and finally from hair loss to death; or to his “reward” as Professor Owl puts it.  Quite a dreary attitude if you think about it, yet Kimball and his team somehow successfully convey all of this through music and well-timed animation, and it’s hilarious! 

I couldn’t help but notice that the backgrounds at times in this picture remind me of Dali’s work; flat empty plains with single objects looming in the distance.  Between Earle’s color choices and O’Connor’s art direction, this film must have erupted from the screen once one put on their stylish 3D glasses.  Being the train enthusiast that Kimball was, there was of course a brief railroad scene (which looks as if a child drew and colored it) that Kimball could call his own.  The final piece of animation that continues to impress me is when Professor Owl cuts a piece of fabric from a graduate cap, and transforms the cloth into a conductor leading a symphony, majestically bringing the film to its grand conclusion in an abstract style.            

The ultimate Disney Historian, Dave Smith, shares some interesting facts about Melody in his Disney A to Z encyclopediaHe notes that the film was shown in the Fantasyland Theater at Disneyland as a part of the 3D Jamboree for several yearsThe 3D process, however, never really caught on with the audience because of the need to wear the polarized glasses. The attraction was eventually retired (Smith, 2006).

What many Disney enthusiasts consider to be the better of the two shorts, Toot, Whistle, Plunk, and Boom, which was released six months after Melody, is nothing short of colorful in style and humor.  Like its predecessor, it’s amazing how Ward Kimball and his fellow staff manage to squeeze so much into a ten minute feature.  I would have loved to been a part of the story development for this particular short.

Where Melody deals with the different styles of music, Toot focuses on the birth of the sounds and instruments that bring them to life.  Once again, we are reunited with Professor Owl and his melodious flock of students.  This time around, however, what better way is there to present the dawning of musical instruments than with the use of cavemen?  It’s interesting to note how Kimball pokes fun at evolution in a scene when Professor Owl winds back his slide presentation, and accidentally rewinds too far, revealing a monkey holding a banana.  Throughout the film, as each of the four sounds (toot, whistle, plunk, and boom) are introduced, the cavemen situated side by side chant, “Ewwww – wah – gah!  Wah!”  The “toot” represents horn instruments, “whistle” woodwinds, acoustic is “pluck”, and “boom” symbolizes percussion.

As I watched this short unfold, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the background styles used in One Hundred and One Dalmations (1961) nearly a decade later.  The lines that define background objects are sharp and angular, and almost seem to have a gritty appearance.  It works well for this particular cartoon, and the vibrant choice of colors compliment the backgrounds and characters well.  I particularly enjoy how the human characters appear to be transparent and the colors of their flesh and clothing seem to spill over the outline of their figure in an abstract approach.  As John Canemaker describes, “The pared-down flat design is rich in color and detailing, and works well with the animation (Canemaker, 2001).”   Animator Art Stevens, who worked on the film, explained in Ollie Johnston's and Frank Thomas' The Illusion of Life: “The characters in Toot, Whistle…aren’t flesh and blood.  They move in a more abstract way – but you aren’t saying that one [animation design] isn’t as entertaining as the other (Johnston, & Thomas, 1981).”  This film, like Melody, screams Ward Kimball’s style, and they must have been a great release for him considering his waning interest in animation at the time.  “I was so relieved to get away from animation,” said Kimball in John Canemaker's Walt Disney's Nine Old Men book. “I knew how to do it.  I wanted to have say about the content (Canemaker, 2001).”

As mentioned earlier in this post, the decision to use limited animation in these shorts was more for economical reasons.  Kimball explained in an interview with Thorkil B. Rasmussen, that Toot was originally supposed to be an educational film used in schools.  Kimball shared:
And since it wasn’t supposed to be for theatrical release, I wanted to cut corners, to make it cheap.  By limiting the animation, you cut your cost.  We cut it in half.  But after Walt saw it he thought it was a keen little picture…   
Melody was special because it was presented in 3D, but Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom is significant because it was the first animated film to be presented in Cinemascope.  Ward Kimball continued the story of Toot’s production:
Darryl F. Zanuck called him [Walt] up – Darryl was promoting Cinemascope – 'Have you got anything that would do in Cinemascope?'   And Walt said, 'Well, I’ll look around,' and then he called me up and said, 'What do you think?  Should we put that picture in Cinemascope?'  'We’re almost finished with it,' I said, 'but OK, I’ll go back and redesign some of the gags for the bigger screen.'  He [Walt] then said, 'Give it the 3D sound too,' and then it went up and got an Academy Award!  And it was just supposed to be a thing for the schools.
In John Canemaker’s book on Walt Disney’s “Nine Old Men”, he makes reference to the fact that critics were comparing Kimball’s two films to that of a UPA production.  Canemaker writes, “Kimball was sensitive about comparisons of his work to that of the studio that gave the world Mr. Magoo (Canemaker, 2001).”  Kimball in his interview with Rasmussen shared:
I understand what UPA was doing and the only comparison there is:  there is more full animation on Toot, Whistle…than UPA ever had.  You look at the owl:  that’s full animation.  It’s just when he starts talking about a subject, he goes to the blackboard, we used limited animation to give it different texture, to separate the subject matter he was lecturing about (Ghez, 2006)…
To add to the critical views of Toot, Whistle, Plunk, and Boom, fellow Disney artists were rather upset, or even jealous of Kimball’s choice of animation style according to Canemaker (Canemaker, 2001).  Ward Kimball quoted, “You can’t imagine the contrast it had to what we were doing when it came out (Canemaker, 2001).”  In my opinion, it’s a shame that more cartoon shorts in this series were never produced, however, in his interview with Joe Adamson, story man Dick Huemer made reference to a third installment of this series that actually made it to the preliminary stages.  Huemer shared:
I was getting up another one about the nostalgia of music, with the same characters…I got the whole board up and presented it publicly in the Penthouse Club to Walt, Roy, and several others and it went over great.  Then they suddenly decided not to make it.  And I did a very bad thing:  I figured they didn’t want it, so I took it down and carelessly left it somewhere, and it was thrown out.  It’s one of the lost stories…
In conclusion, it’s amazing to think that two little cartoons could have raised such a stink, or more importantly, claimed success!  The “Adventures in Music” series marked a new beginning for Disney animation, and the experimentation of style continued into the 1960's.  Sometimes these changes displeased Disney veterans (Walt included), however, I feel they were necessary in order to expand Disney’s horizons and adapt to the times.  Walt Disney’s classic animation, presented in its lush and romantic form, will always be my favorite, however, it is incredible to see what else the studio was capable of thanks to unique and creative artists like Ward Kimball.  At one time, he looked back on these two cartoons and stated in Canemaker's Nine Old Men, “We broke all of the rules (Canemaker, 2001).”

We thank you Ward!