Thursday, January 8, 2009

News - 01/08/09...

Frank Zappa Explains Why Cartoons Today Suck

Want to understand why entertaining cartoons are all but impossible to produce nowadays? You can have the answer in just two short minutes by watching the first part of this interview with Frank Zappa. Though Zappa is explaining the decline of the music business, everything he says is applicable to the animation world as well.

His words were important enough that I made a transcript for my own reference. Here is what Frank says:

“One thing that did happen during the Sixties was some music of an unusual or experimental nature did get recorded or did get released. Now look at who the executives were in those companies at those times. Not hip young guys. These were cigar-chomping old guys who looked at the product that came and said, ‘I don’t know. Who knows what it is. Record it. Stick it out. If it sells, alright.’ We were better off with those guys than we are now with the supposedly hip young executives who are making the decisions of what people should see and hear in the marketplace. The young guys are more conservative and more dangerous to the art form than the old guys with the cigars ever were. …Next thing you know [the hip young executive has] got his feet on the desk and he’s saying, ‘Well we can’t take a chance on this because that’s not what the kids really want and I know.’ And they got that attitude. And the day you get rid of that attitude and get back to ‘Who knows. Take a chance.’ That entrepreneurial spirit where even if you don’t like or understand what the record is that’s coming in the door, the person who is in the executive chair may not be the final arbiter of taste of the entire population.”

His ideas about how old-school execs were better for the music industry than younger “hip” execs directly mirror my own beliefs about why the animation industry’s output nowadays is so creatively spineless and lacking in point of view. Back in 2005, I wrote a piece called “Animation’s Greatest Executives” in which I sung the praises of the Golden Age animation execs like Leon Schlesinger, Eddie Selzer and Fred Quimby. These guys don’t receive much praise in history books, but it’s no accident that the most entertaining industry cartoons were produced under their watch.

In that earlier post, I offered this quote from Tex Avery discussing his relationship with the exec Leon Schlesinger at Warners:

“We worked every night — [Chuck] Jones, [Bob] Clampett, and I were all young and full of ambition. My gosh, nothing stopped us! We encouraged each other, and we really had a good ball rolling. I guess Schlesinger saw the light; he said, ‘Well, I’ll take you boys away from the main plant.’ He put us in our own little shack over on the [Warner Bros.] Sunset lot, completely separated from the Schlesinger studio, in some old dressing room or toilet or something, a little cottage sort of thing. We called it Termite Terrace. And he was smart; he didn’t disturb us. We were all alone out there, and he knew nothing of what went on.”

It should come as little surprise that Avery’s endorsement of Schlesinger so closely mirrors Zappa’s praise for the “cigar-chomping old” music execs. Leaving great artists alone to create great work is common sense. Execs in animation’s earlier days understood their roles. They were the money men and that’s all. It was their job to create an environment where cartoons could be created most efficiently, not to dictate the content of the animation. Today, execs want to noodle with every part of the process, even those aspects about which they are clueless like entertainment and humor. They have gone so far as to give themselves oxymoronic job titles like “creative exec” and “development exec” to justify their interference in the creative process. There are those rare exceptions when something good makes it to air, but look at the history of those projects and in every instance it is in spite of the current system, not because of it.

The secret to creating memorable cartoon characters and successful series is not so much a secret as it is common sense. If any studio ever figures it out, they’ll be laughing all the way to the bank.

Director Tex Avery and exec Fred Quimby at MGM

(Thanks, Seamus Walsh, for the Zappa link)

(Thanks cartoonbrew)

New Christmas Carol poster

A photograph of a new poster for Robert Zemeckis’ motion-capture film A Christmas Carol can be seen at MarketSaw 3D. The one-sheet features a look at the character of Scrooge, who will be played by Jim Carrey. Carrey is also set to portray six other characters in the upcoming Disney movie, which will be screen in traditional as well as 3D compatible theaters. A Christmas Carol opens on November 6th, 2009.

Kimball to receive Oscar’s Bonner Medal

Mark Kimball has been named this year’s recipient of the Academy’s John A. Bonner Medal of Commendation, which is awarded in appreciation for outstanding service and dedication in upholding the high standards of the Academy. Kimball worked at Walt Disney where he spent two decades working as the CAPS logistics system lead, a senior software systems specialist, a consulting engineer, chief technologist, and director of digital production. His feature credits include Tron, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, Pocahontas, Dinosaur and Atlantis: The Lost Empire. Currently Kimball works as an independent media technology systems expert.

Waltz with Bashir and Persepolis up for foreign film BAFTA

Variety reports that Ari Folman’s animated war documentary Waltz with Bashir and Marjane Satrapi’s semi-autobiographical animated feature Persepolis are among the five shortlisted films which will compete for best foreign language film at BAFTA this year. The full list of nominations for the awards will be announced on January 15 and the awards ceremony will take place on February 8, at London’s Royal Opera House.

The Secret of the Magic Gourd DVD in January

DVDTimes reports that Walt Disney Studios Home EntertaItalicinment have announced the DVD release of Disney’s first Chinese-language film The Secret of the Magic Gourd on 27th January. In addition to the English soundtrack, the DVD will also feature Mandarin and Cantonese language tracks. Extras will include “Too Many Toys” – Multi-level game, “Behind the Scenes” Featurette and “Bloopers”.

"Dora" and "Diego" receive Image Award nominations

Nickelodeon's animated "Dora The Explorer" and "Go, Diego, Go" are among the four nominees for the NAACP Image Award for outstanding children's program.

The 40th NAACP Image Awards nominees were announced Wednesday during a press conference at The Beverly Hilton Hotel. This year's Image Awards will air live Thursday, February 12 (8 to 10 p.m. ET/PT tape-delayed) on FOX.

Also up for outstanding children's program are the Disney Channel series Cheetah Girls: One World and Cory in the House, as well as Nickelodeon's True Jackson, VP.

For Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series, the nominees include Aaron McGruder and Rodney Barnes for "The Story of Gangstalicious Part 2," an episode of Cartoon Network's The Boondocks, and Marc Wilmore for "My Pods and Broomstick," an episode of FOX's The Simpsons.

Academy Award winner Halle Berry and acclaimed screenwriter/actor Tyler Perry, both recipients of an NAACP Image Award, will host this year's NAACP Image Awards, broadcast live from Los Angeles' historic Shrine Auditorium. This star-studded event, which coincides with the NAACP's 100th anniversary, will kick off the organization’s year-long centennial celebration. Previously announced honorees include former Vice-President Al Gore and Dr. Wangari Maathai, who will both receive the Chairman's Award.

"WALL-E," "Simpsons" win People's Choice Awards

Pixar-Disney's "WALL-E" and Fox's perennial sitcom "The Simpsons" won trophies Wednesday during the People's Choice Awards, which was otherwise a sweep for Caped Crusader movie The Dark Knight.

Wall-E won in the Family Movie category over DreamWorks' Kung Fu Panda and the live-action The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian.

Meanwhile, The Simpsons was victorious in the Animated Comedy category over Family Guy and South Park.

At the 35th annual People's Choice Awards, The Dark Knight won every trophy for which it was nominated. It picked up five awards: favorite movie, cast, superhero, action movie and on-screen matchup (Christian Bale as Batman and the late Heath Ledger as The Joker).

Queen Latifah hosted the CBS ceremony, which returned this year to the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. Last year, the program was pre-taped due to the writers' strike.

Soulja Boy Tell 'Em to Launch Web Animated Series

Rapper Soulja Boy Tell 'Em has premiered a live-actoin/animated series on his website (press release). He plays himself in Soulja Boy Tell 'Em: The Animated Series, which "follows an animated Soulja Boy who is in midst of enjoying his hip-hop superstardom when he's suddenly forced to return to High School." According to Billboard magazine, Soulja Boy is seeking a cable TV network that will continue the series and is targeting Comedy Central.

Virginia Madsen Discusses Voicing Hippolyta in "Wonder Woman"


(Click on any image to view it in full-size high-definition resolution.)

Academy Award nominee Virginia Madsen brings an impassioned, stately voice to the role of Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, for “Wonder Woman,” the next entry in the popular series of DC Universe animated original PG-13 movies.

Warner Premiere, DC Comics and Warner Bros. Animation are set to release the all-new film on March 3, 2009, distributed by Warner Home Video. The animated original movie will also be available OnDemand and Pay-Per-View as well as available for download day and date, March 3, 2009.

Madsen has moved seamlessly through all genres of performance – from mainstream feature films and independent releases to primetime television and animated films/series. No category is beyond her scope – and the fanboy realm has a prominent place on her IMDB roll call.

Academy Award nominee Virginia Madsen provides the voice for Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, in “Wonder Woman"

Madsen made a splash in one of her first films as Princess Irulan in “Dune,” then forever endeared herself to the horror fandom as Helen Lyle in “Candyman” (for which she won the 1992 Saturn Award in the Best Actress category). She has made guest starring appearances on “Star Trek: Voyager” and “Earth 2,” helped Christopher Lambert return in “Highlander II: The Quickening” and done notable work in super hero animation. Madsen voiced Dr. Sarah Corwin and Roulette in four episodes of “Justice League” and Arella in an episode of “Teen Titans,” as well as a two-episode turn as Silver Sable in “Spider-Man.”

Along the way, she’s starred opposite Harrison Ford, Meryl Streep, James Coburn, Jim Carrey, Billy Bob Thornton, Matt Damon, Alec Baldwin, James Woods and Whoopi Goldberg in dramatic feature films like “Ghosts of Mississippi,” “The Rainmaker” and “Firewall.” She’s also been recognized with an ongoing string of awards and nominations for her work in independent films like “Gotham” and “Artworks”

And of course, Madsen is best known for earning a 2005 Academy Award nomination as Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role for “Sideways.”

At the urging of an acting coach, Madsen actually began performing voiceovers when she was pregnant with her now-14-year-old son. She was able to find time in her single-mother/busy-actress life to discuss subjects ranging from her secret desire to play Batman and the reading lessons inherent to comic books to working as a waitress at the same Evanston, Illinois restaurant as “Wonder Woman” co-star Marg Helgenberger.

All hail the Q&A with the queen ... Virginia Madsen

QUESTION: Did you prepare for voicing the Queen of the Amazons in any special way?

Well, I prepared this morning by writing several edicts for my son (laughs). Honestly, I love when I get to play these characters that are bigger than life. There are roles in animation that I never get to do in real life – and it appeals to my ego as an actor to play the Queen of Everything (laughs) Hey, I’m honest. I admit it.

Hippolyta has a really wide range – I use a lot of notes when I play her. She has a larger, more regal voice. I liked the range we use to create her vocally, and the way that she was written. It’s not that she’s over the top, but she’s just a very, very big character. And I don’t usually get to do that on onscreen.

Queen Hippolyta (voiced by Virginia Madsen) glances back at her Amazonian subjects – including her daughter, princess Diana (far right) – in “Wonder Woman.”

QUESTION: Is that part of the allure of voice acting for you – to gain satisfaction in performances that you don’t find on camera?

Voiceover work reminds me of old-time radio. When I was little I used to sneak and stay up at night and listen to Mystery Radio Theater – I loved all those old radio plays. A radio play actually ended up being the first acting job I ever had. A lot of times when I’m on camera, I’m playing characters that are more like myself, and I don’t get to do a lot of real character work. But when you’re doing animation, you are the very epitome of colorful characters. I think I’m just really into make believe. In animation, there’s silly things I get to do with my voice. I get to have a wider range, so my voice gets to dance more than it does on camera. So it’s almost like I get to be more theatrical when I work in voiceover.

QUESTION: You’re voicing the Queen of the Amazons, but she’s also the mother of Diana/Wonder Woman. Did your standing as a single mother of a 14-year-old son influence your taking the role or your performance?

Well, I am a proud mother – that’s another reason I love doing any kind of animation. When my son was growing up, if he was watching something animated and I was in it, that was way cooler to him than seeing me in a movie.

Hippolyta is very protective, and she thinks she knows it all, and I do as a mother in real life know it all (laughs). And if my son would only listen to my advice, he would lead a perfect life (laughs harder). I’ll still be saying that to him when I’m 75. I like to imagine that I have the control that Hippolyta does, but he’s a teenager, so that never really happens (laughs).

A prior relationship is revealed in an opening battle between Ares (voiced by Alfred Molina) and Hippolyta (voiced by Virginia Madsen) in “Wonder Woman.”

QUESTION: This is a blockbuster voice cast – any thoughts on your co-stars?

Actually, Marg Helgenberger and I were waitresses in the same restaurant in Evanston, Illinois. I’m happy to say that that restaurant has since been torn down. But Marg made it out first. We both had an audition for ABC soaps – different soaps, but we auditioned at the same time, and she got the part and went off to New York. Three years later, I went to L.A. So she was kind of an inspiration to me. And it makes sense that we will both be in Wonder Woman together, because we ARE Wonder Women (laughs).

I love Keri Russell. I watched every episode of Felicity, and Waitress is my favorite film from last year. She’s just an amazing actress. And I like her voice a lot – it didn’t surprise me that she would be doing voiceover work.

QUESTION: You’ve got some notable experience in the sci-fi/fanboy world. Do you seek out these projects?

VIRGINIA MADSEN: I think it seems to find me, and that might be because I’m a fan. I would have been a fan of “Candyman” even if I hadn’t been in that movie. I’m a huge fan of “Star Trek,” which is why I was in “Star Trek: Voyager”
– because I begged them to be a part of that lore. I was always an actress, even as a little kid, and fantasy, horror, sci-fi stories are really all about playing make believe. I just never grew out of that.

QUESTION: “Dune” was released 25 years ago. Do you have any specific memories?

That was really my first Hollywood job. It was such a small part, but I opened the movie. I was about 19 years old and I had to make this speech, and I didn’t understand most of the words because they were, you know, words from “Dune.” They were made up names that I didn’t know how to pronounce, but I knew how I should sound because I was a sci-fi fan myself. I hadn’t read the book, but I knew that I was the princess of the universe. I went in and sort of made her up, and David Lynch thought it matched and cast me.

Queen Hippolyta preares to fend off one of Ares’ villainous minions in “Wonder Woman.”

QUESTION: Were/are you a comic book reader?

I was not a comic book reader, but my son is. My son wasn’t really interested in reading books, which was hard for me because I love to read. It just didn’t come naturally to my boy. So we kind of found comic books because they were fascinating to him. They were great stories. Of course, I have to read them all first, because now when you get into graphic novels, they are definitely in deep graphic. But the stories and the characters really interest him, so comic books kind of taught him how to read. So we’re really into comic books.

QUESTION: Is there a comic book role that your inner geek covets?

Sadly, I really want to be Batman … and I just never will be (laughs). That’s the cross I bear. When I was growing up, the really, really cool super heroes were all male – so I wanted to be them. I really didn’t like Batgirl. I was like, “No, if I’m not gonna be Batman, I’m not gonna play.” Maybe they could write an evil female super villain who takes over Batman, and nobody knows. Then I could live my dream (laughs). I think that’s a good idea.

Please visit the film’s official website at

Willing to Ink and Paint?

A feature film guy is penning a new episode of The Simpsons:

"[Seth Rogan] wrote an episode we'll be reading soon, where Comic-Book Guy creates a superhero comic which then gets made into a feature film. Homer plays the lead and to slim down, Seth Rogen will play his personal trainer."

-- Matt Groening

But that's not what attracted my attention. It was this ...

"Every episode is still drawn by hand but we no longer have animators willing to ink and paint actual stories, so it's all done on computer."

-- Matt Groening Again

Uh, I've been through the studio any number of times in recent weeks, and everybody is more than willing to ink and paint ... or draw with Number 2 pencils.

Except a few months back, the studio imported a mess of Cintiqs for artists to draw on. Now don't misunderstand, the artists are pretty much fine with drawing on computers, and have adapted to them fine.

But not willing to "ink and paint"? Hardly. The boys and girls in management decided that drawing on digital screens was the way to go, what with the new wider screen, high def format to which The Simpsons teevee series has now converted. (Also, the desire to be more cost efficient.)

But I'm glad Seth Rogan is writing a new episode. Because it's one more new episode for the artistic staff to work on.

(Thanks Animation Guild Blog)

At the Big Mouse

Part of my day was spent wandering the ever-popular hat building of Disney Animation Studios. Everybody was friendly and chatty ...

Rapunzel, I'm told, is poised to launch into production after a lengthy pre-production.

It's gone through different permutations. Used to be pretty dark, but not it's lightened up a lot and going to be a musical. We're pretty near to getting it rolling into the production phase.

An artist upstairs -- who I've known for years -- agreed with me that Twilight did the White Doggie no favors by opening the same day and date:

I think it was a marketing screwup. Twilight hurt us. After the film came out, John Lasseter insisted the marketing department do a post-mortem the same way that the animation department does. Marketing didn't want to, said it knew what it was doing, said it never did post-mortems, but this time they did one.

And John had some hard things to say about their work ...

My take has been that Twilight did a good job suppressing the Disney toon's first weekend gross. Obviously, it's conjecture how Bolt might have done had it premiered four days later or a week before. But the fact that the picture has performed well after that first weekend reinforces my opinion the white pooch received more than a flesh wound from the sexy zombie picture.

Horror movies -- even mild, 'tween-centered horror movies -- are generally front-loaded performers. And Twilight wasn't an exception.

Ah well. Everybody has their own half-baked opinion, and mine is as half-baked as anybody's. There is, in the end, only what happened. Nobody can know "what would have happened IF ..."

Here's hoping the picture burns up the turnstiles overseas. And knocks them dead on DVD this Spring.

(Thanks Animation Guild Blog)

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