Some Thanks, Merry Christmas and a Happy 2005

I've recieved such an overwhelming response to my commentary and analysis of THE POLAR EXPRESS, that I find it hard not to say THANKS! Thank you all for the responses and to the thoughtful dialogue that should exist between artists and audiences. I do feel that I should give props to Ethan at Persistence of Vision, to James at Seward Street, to Jared at his Little Crockpot of News and Thoughts blog, to Lili and Eddie at fwak! Blog, and especially to Amid at Cartoon Brew, for the exposure. My blog traffic went through the roof this past week, and now I feel so exposed, so naked. But hey! That's a good thing, I guess. We are all entitled to some "naked time," every once in a while.

I liked what James mentioned in his blog about us artists and animators being open to constructive criticism, as it should be about wanting to make things better. That's the whole point of my POLAR EXPRESS essays: to see what could've been done to make the movie more enjoyable and a little less irritable and unsettling.

I love the Holidays. Spending time with the family is so special to me and I wish the best to my readers for the coming year. Thanks for making these last two months of 2004 a great experience for me. I only hope that you guys have had just as must fun reading my ramblings as I have had rambling.

And now, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas, and a truly great New Year for 2005.


The Polar Express: A Virtual Train Wreck (conclusion)

Finally! I'm back with the conclusion to my commentary on THE POLAR EXPRESS. If you missed the first installment, just scroll down a bit or click HERE. Okay, let's get back to it.

If you checked out the Newsweek article that I mentioned last time, you were subjected to the above image, with multiple Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks all dolled up in hi-tech mo-cap gear. Here is where Warner Bros' marketing was really banking on the prestige of Hanks getting all dirty, showing that he's willing to go the extra mile to give us, the audience, something worth watching. But, unfortunately, we are given the actual image from the movie from where this performance was captured. A "before and after" scenario, I guess. It's all too telling, if you ask me. Do you see what's happened from Point A to Point B? Somehow they spent millions of dollars to literally take the soul out of an Oscar-winning actor's performance. That's quite a feat!

I sat there just staring at this image, trying to figure out what happened. What exactly is going on here? Why does the image on the top look so engaging, so vibrant, so full of life, but the image on the bottom - which is supposed to be the exact same performance of the actor "captured" by the computer - look so dead and puppet-like? I went around the internet searching for anyone who might've tried to explain this. I found nothing. There were many who talked about it, who went on about The Uncanny Valley and such (which I mentioned in my previous post), but never anyone who really sat down and analyzed the movie and its characters, frame-by-frame. This is when I decided to do some investigating on my own.

With a vigilant eye, I studied Hanks and his avatar, nit-picking all the most minute details. I noticed several things. First, his brow and the area around the eyes did not have that same subtle intensity that you see from the original image. (What's happening here in the story is Hank's character, the Engineer, is singing into an intercom, while the children on the train are being served hot chocolate. Oh, and keep in mind that this is not a scientific study, just me having some fun, trying to figure some stuff out. And I feel I should say that all images from the film are copyright Warner Bros. So there.) There's a slight twinge in Hank's eye that you cannot make out in the Engineer's image. I know that the glasses are in the way, but even still. Also, the area around the mouth is not as emotive either. There's some stretching going on with the real Hanks that is not picked up in the fake Hanks, just outside the edge of the mouth. I understand that they added some weight to the Engineer, and it's reflected here, but I also know that bigger people are just as capable of emotion, so I'm not going to let that by. Even with weight, you should be able to feel the intensity of the Engineer singing into the intercom. And I'm not seeing that here.

Also, when Hanks pulls his head up to belt into the mic, there's some straining going on in his neck area. This, again, is lost in the digital version. The way he thrusts his head up and out, with his shoulders going down, and the way his right arm is positioned all get mussed up, and become stiff and weak. There must be something in the way that the characters are created, or "modeled", that no matter how much the digital artists tried to tweak to get the body just right, the CG model would still win. All the characters I've seen in FINAL FANTASY and THE POLAR EXPRESS have a puppet-like, marionette-style of construction. The shoulders, the way they walk, the way the head is held in turns, etc. - even when you are capturing real live action for the performances - all have a stiffness to them that apparently cannot be tamed.

My experimenting did not stop with Tom and the Engineer. I decided to grab some images from the film of the main Hero Boy (yes, that's his official name), and his friends to see if I could do better. Now, I am not a CG animator, nor have I ever done any CG modeling or shading and lighting, so these experiments are just that - experiments. I know that there are many many things involved when the animators and digital artists created these scenes in the movie. I'm very familiar with the CG realm as I see it in action on a daily basis here at Primal Screen. So, I'm just going into Photoshop and tweaking the characters to see what could've been. That's all.

Here we have our Hero Boy, just getting on the train and looking out at his neighborhood. For this scene he's unsure about this strange vision of a huge steam locomotive barreling through his town, and so he's excited, yet very wary. So what's up with his face? He looks like he's pissed off at the Engineer for forcing him to get onboard.

Here is my version. Nothing too major, just some subtlety added to the eyebrows and mouth. Now he looks like he's engaged with what's going on, and not angry.

Here, the boy has gotten his ticket and is apparently mesmerized by the darn thing. He looks so vapid. The one thing that I noticed in the movie, was that it seemed like they wanted to light Hero Boy's eyes with such intensity that we would be in constant awe of them. But in reality, they looked like doll eyes. It's just not natural to be able to see all of the iris all of the time. There will always be some shadows present, even with the most dramatic, intense eyes.

And thus, I softened the intensity of his irises and pupils by adding a little bit of shadow just underneath the upper eyelid. Also, I widened his mouth, and again, tweaked his eyebrows.

This was a doozy for me. I got this image from the teaser trailer, when the boy is gazing out at the lights and sounds of the train going by in front of his home. Since this trailer came out a full year before the movie was released, there's a slight possibility that they had changed some details in this particular scene, so I dunno. The boy looks downright freaky. Here, you see what I was talking about his irises being lit up to the point that they are oddly illuminating. Almost like they're about to vaporize you.

After many attempts, I finally came up with something that was halfway decent to me. After working on this one, I came to the conclusion that this character was simply designed poorly. I understand that the filmmakers used real kids for the look and image scans for all the characters, but sometimes what is real does not transpire well into animation, or rather, digitally. There has to be some tweaking to get it to look right. And my main problem with the Hero Boy (besides his eyes) were his eyebrows and his mouth. Maybe the original boy from whom they used to model for the CG character had downturned eyebrows, but I guarantee you that he did not look pissed off and mad at everybody all day. If the filmmakers could've just raised the eyebrows a bit, especially in this scene as he's watching in amazement at this fantastical event, then there could've been some more humanity put into the boy. Just these subtle touches make all the difference in the world.

I did not like the look of this boy at all. He's supposed to be the lonely boy, with a (possible) broken home, poor, untidy, without any spark of drive left in him. Well, his creators felt that to convey this type of sad sack you should give him a dull haircut that makes him look like he's wearing a nicely round fur helmet, making his ears protude, Dumbo-like. Also, they give him strange, rat-like eyes, with no lips at all. He looks like a death mask. But alive! Terrible character design.

Again, I had to fix the eyebrows. (What's with the eyebrows?) I made them more pronounced, and raised them just slightly. I gave him tussled hair, since he's supposed to be "unkempt," but I think I went a little too far. But the roughing up does give some personality to him now. There needs to be some assymetry to this character and you can do that with the hair. Hair can do wonders for character design, as it's unique for each character. You can do so much with hair to convey any type of personality, even with a simple lock. I fixed the bridge of his nose, as it was too strong. I gave him a turned-up nose, similar to a childhood friend of mine. Also, I had to do major work around the character's eyes to try to steer away from that mask-like quality. Plus, I gave him some lips. He was a toughie. I'm not sure if he's at tip-top shape, but he's better off than he was, that's for sure.

As for the girl in the background, I did some touch-up, but I decided not to get too far with it on her. She was the better designed of the bunch, but she still had problems with her eyes and her skin. The creators made a costly mistake in rendering her skin for this movie, making her seem "ashy," or having seemingly very dry skin.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to conclude that THE POLAR EXPRESS has some terrible character designs. If they could have just hired somebody with an inkling of aesthetic value to determine what needed to be changed and fixed, then all this could have been avoided. But here we are.

Some other thoughts about motion-capture:

One thing I admired Peter Jackson and his co-horts on THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, was his uncanny ability to notice the details. And when something wasn't looking right in his eyes, he acknowledged it right away and worked hard in fixing the problem. Sometimes things don't go the way you imagined them and with Gollum, he proved the hardest character to design and depict on screen. They originally were going to use actor Andy Serkis's voice for Gollum, and some performance actor do the mo-cap bits, but when they checked out video of Andy in the soundbooth, performing Gollum's voice by twisting and wriggling his face and contorting his body to get the voice right, they felt that maybe he would be the perfect guy to do the performance for the character. And boy, did he get into the character. (If you ever get the chance, read Gollum: A Behind the Scenes Guide of the Making of Gollum, written by Andy Serkis himself. It's a fascinating read.) The boys at Weta Digital created a program that dealt with facial expressions, lining up digital skin to Andy's facial details when he created a particular expression.

As they grabbed Andy's performance via mo-cap, Weta had actual animators go in and tweak the performances to make sure they fit the appropriate scenes. Some scenes required more animation, using "keys" (main poses) and having the animator actually manipulate the digital character to give it that extra umph. Just the same, some scenes were mostly mo-cap, with hardly any animation involved. The face was the only place where they used animators entirely. So yes, motion-capture can be a good thing, like picking up on subtle things that the body does for a particular motion that maybe the animator would not realize. Mo-cap helped further the production, simplifying some motions that animators could've had a hard time working on. Here on LOTR, animation and mo-cap worked hand-in-hand: a happy symbiotic relationship. Peter Jackson was recorded to have said that even with all the technology used, they found out that what Disney did in the 30's was still the most reliable way of getting personality into the character.

And as I recall, there was possible talk of Oscar for Andy Serkis's performance, remember? I'm not hearing the same for Oscar-winning Tom Hanks, I'm afraid.

More thoughts. Looking through that wonderful book, The Art of The Incredibles, I came across some interesting quotes:

"In my opinion it's always been a fallacy, the notion that human characters have to look photo-realistic in CG. You can do so much more with stylized human characters. Audiences innately know how humans move and gravity works, so if a human character doesn't feel right, they'll feel something's wrong. But if the weight works for stylized characters, the audience doesn't question it - like the Dwarfs in SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS, which were so cartoony and stylized. In THE INCREDIBLES, the characters are cartoony heroes but they can be hurt and they have this family dynamic that makes them believable." Ralph Eggleston, Artistic Director for THE INCREDIBLES

There is so much leeway given to stylized human characters, so when you get into that uncanny valley of photo-real digital humans, the audience will notice even the slightest of quirks. Here's another quote:

"From the beginning, we all wanted the cast of characters to look like cartoon people instead of photo-realistic people. In animation, it really takes a bit of exaggeration to make something look convincing. The great caricaturist Al Hirshfeld most typified this. He could perfectly capture a person's identity by simply sketching curlicues for hair and pinholes for eyes. The faces and attitudes he drew were often more recognizable in the abstract than if they had been rendered out realistically." Teddy Newton, Character Designer on THE INCREDIBLES

That's what I was talking about in giving a certain motion that extra umph. Even though every little detail is recorded by motion-capture technology, the performance up on screen still looks stiff and robotic. As an animator, I understand that real life looks dull if rendered exact, and I've had to pump up some scenes to give them that extra bit of life to an otherwise banal movement.

So now, we see that THE POLAR EXPRESS is doing quite well at the box office of recent. I know why. It's got that feel-good Christmas-is-in-your-heart pap that the general public seems to enjoy. And I guess that most audiences will wow and awe at the "magic" of the setting of this film. They'll be amazed by the look and feel of it, because to the unknowing eye, it's something that's new and exciting. That's fine. But we know better, right?

What I find incredibly ironic with the film is that in the story, our Hero Boy has a hard time believing in Santa and in Christmas as a whole. It takes a roller-coaster ride of a trip to the North Pole to finally understand what it means to really believe in Christmas. It's even stamped on his ticket: BELIEVE. Only when he truly believes can he finally hear Santa's sleigh bell that is given to him as the first gift of Christmas. As I watched the screen, I could not help but laugh as I somehow knew that we, the audience, were really the Boy, wanting to truly believe in these characters. But, alas, in the end, we still cannot hear that darn sleigh bell ring.

(This commentary was written in December '04. I am currently working on a follow-up to all this Polar Express hubbub and will post it sometime in February '05. If you are a new visitor, don't forget to check out The Ward-O-Matic's main page for the latest. Thanks. --Ward.)


In the meantime

Sorry for the delay in concluding my review/commentary of THE POLAR EXPRESS, but I've been out of town and finding time to write has become a bit of a challenge. I've got some good stuff to say in the next installment, and I don't want to post just anything, so just wanted to let you all know that I haven't forgotten ya.

In the meantime, here are some links that I frequent from time to time.

Loobylu is a great artist blog that pretty much got me started in all this. It's Claire Robertson's blog and she's a great illustrator from Australia and you can check out her work HERE.

I like is a pretty cool blog with loads of links to things that are very interesting. I like.

Tirade is Ronnie Del Carmen's blog on art, interests, etc. Ronnie works as a story artist at world-famous Pixar Studios, and I've been a big fan of his work for about a year and a half now, even buying two issues of his comic, Paper Biscuit. You can check his work out HERE.

Michel Gagné is a fantastic animator who worked on THE IRON GIANT and made the incredible short, PRELUDE TO EDEN. Amazing special effects animator along with possessing an eye for the fantastical with his bizarre Insanely Twisted Rabbits book. He's working with a Flash animator and have come up with The Insanely Twisted Puppet Show which promises to be one of the most intriging offerings for the next year. Let's hope he gets the show greenlit.

Some other artists I'm digging:
Adrian Johnson: cool designer/illustrator from the UK.
Tim Biskup: great illustrator who was a former animator/background painter and now is part of that underground, "low-brow" art movement.
Arthur DePins: French illustrator/animator who's made some of the best Flash animation I've ever seen. Be sure to check out his amazing shorts L'Eau de Rose and La Révolution des Crabes.
art smear is a blog started up by artist James Palmer, a fellow Atlanta artist who has mastered Painter. His work evokes an oil painterly look, but is entirely digital. You would never know it was done in the computer. Take a lookie-see.

In the following weeks I plan on having a post of my influences, chock-full of links. I'd like to see what you, my readers, are influenced by too, so shoot me an email and I'll see what I can do.

Thanks for being patient.


The Polar Express: A Virtual Train Wreck

This is Part One of two. Click here for Part Two, where I try and "fix" the characters in Photoshop.

I've delayed posting my review of THE POLAR EXPRESS for some time now because I've been so perplexed by this film. I mean, the film as a whole is not so bad. It's got some great visuals and some wonderful camera work by director Robert Zemeckis. I usually have a large grey area for movies, and this falls right in the middle for me. I do not hate it. Nor do I love it. I do feel that there may have been far too much emphasis placed on the technology, promoting all the hoopla about the motion-capture mumbo-jumbo in recording Tom Hanks' movements and his "acting," and not enough interest pushing the story and characters. But was there enough there to push? I dunno. It was, after all, based on a children's book, and so the story gets stretched far and wide in many places. Read: it's rather thin.

But being an animator, there was this immense build-up of animosity towards this film and what it meant to the feature animation community. Should I dismiss THE POLAR EXPRESS solely on the fact that it's not really animation even though it's purporting to be an "animated" film? Is it really animation, after all? And why in the heck do all the characters look so bizarre and so unconvincing?

That's my main question. Why, with all the millions pumped into the production of this technological "masterpiece," do all the children still look so creepy? It's ironic, don't you think? I mean, you read Newsweek's article on the film and you'd believe that this was the second coming of filmmaking. But after reading about 500 visual-effects specialists working for three years, and about 72 cameras capturing Tom Hanks' movements, 194 "jewels" on the actor's body for recording thus movements into the computer (152 on the face alone), and $164 million spent on the movie, I just have to say: SO WHAT? So what if you spent so much on the technology for this film. If you can't make believable characters and put them in a likable story, it's like putting paint on poo. You can't hide the stink.

So, what's going on here? Motion-capture is what the big hub-bub is all about. And guess what? It's nothing new. But don't tell the promotional department at Warner Bros. They want you to think that what Zemeckis & Co. are creating here is the next level in motion picture making, that this is where's it's heading to. Not so. This technology has been used before in other movies, most recently in the entire LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, and even going back as far as 1997's TITANIC, for all the little crewmen and passengers on that doomed ship. Actors in the latter film were recorded doing basic movements like walking, picking things up, waving, talking, etc. In the LOTR movies, the technique was ramped up and utilized the best most notably with the full-fledged digital character of Gollum. It's also used extensively in the gaming industry, capturing movements for characters fighting, hitting, dodging, blocking, all sorts of moves.

But actually, it doesn't begin with TITANIC or with games. It's really a gussied-up version of rotoscoping, if you ask me. Rotoscoping: tracing over live action movement. Some animation purists will balk at the use of this technique, but believe it or not, it's been around since Max Fleischer created a device to do such a thing in 1914 for his "Out of the Inkwell" series. It's been used for help in many animated films throughout the years, including SNOW WHITE and CINDERELLA. Ralph Bakshi used it extensively (and not really for assistance) in several of his films. Was it animation? Not really, as here Bakshi and his artists were just drawing over live action that was shot specifically for each scene. Why do it, then? I would like to think it was for a unique look, to give some sort of different aesthetic to a dying art-form (this was the 70's, remember). But it probably was because of money. Ralph didn't have enough money to pay for any "real" animation, so he just decided to film it all with actors and get some dudes to trace over everything. It's interesting to look at, but I do feel like after watching AMERICAN POP, that it really would've been an incredibly boring movie if it was just live action only. And it does get old after about an hour of it.

So, now, we've got POLAR EXPRESS, and after talking with several of my coworkers, we've all come to the conclusion that this movie would've been a much better film if it was live action characters in a digital environment. That way, you would've still kept the whimsy of the environments, setting, and overall look, yet kept the characters from veering off into "living-dead land." As I mentioned earlier, I enjoyed the film. To a certain degree. I enjoyed the use of the camera as you can definitely tell that Zemeckis was having fun with his new-found freedom from the usual restraints of camera work within a live action setting. If you've ever watched a movie being made, you know how much time is spent on getting the camera and lights set up. It literally is like watching grass grow. Very tedious and time consuming. So you can see where he's wanting to go with this film. Zemeckis just wants to have fun. And he does with several shots, like the lost ticket scene. Also with the train on the frozen lake. There's some great visuals going on here, but I swear, each time we cut back to a reaction shot of the characters, I was thrown out of the film like a Bob Knight chair. It was so hard for me to watch this film.

Why do this to an audience? Why subject us to freakish half-dead soulless children up on a huge screen? It's frustrating me, I tell ya. I just had to figure this out. Why do these kids (and Tom Hanks, too) veer into the now-famous uncanny valley? This narrow, yet horrifying proverbial trench of seemingly realistic characters being so close to reality that they become eerie and unsettling? Dr. Masahiro Mori's concept here was originally coined for humans' relationship to robotic design (in the 70's, even). And now, with almost-real cyber humans sharing space up on screen with real human counterparts, it's been resurrected as a very truthful description for what is going here. Others have brought this subject up on various blogs, such as Robot Johnny (although he was talking about Pixar's INCREDIBLES), Comic Con's The Beat, and the excellent Intelligent Artifice. Why do this anyway? Is it to boast that ultra- or even hyper-realistic humans are the Holy Grail for CG artists? Some feel that it is. But is it worth it? Once these artisans and engineers reach that level, then what? It's not going to make a dent in the long run, save for a few footnotes in CG history. Film history buffs may find it interesting for a paragraph, but this achievement will not force us to scrap our history books entirely.

Chuck Close, Big Self-Portrait (detail), 1967-68, acrylic on canvas.

Take a look at history. When photography was introduced in the mid- to late-19th century, everybody thought that it was the end of painting. Not so. Painters reacted with interest as the Impressionists took to the subject matter in similar ways that the fledgling art-form of photography was focusing on: everyday life and regular subject matter. It became a different tool, rather than rendering painting extinct. The same thing has been going on for years in the animation camp. The question is always brought up about computers taking over 2D, or traditional, hand-drawn animation. And many on both sides of the fence always agree that CG animation will not force 2D animation extinct. Again, it's just a different tool brought to the table. As for the issue of realism in art, take a look at the Photorealism, or Hyper-realism art movement of the 60's and 70's. These artists resorted to photos for reference and painted EXACTLY what they saw. It was not a progression to a level that was the upmost for artists, but rather just another art movement. No one expected that this was where all art was heading to, but rather another way of looking at life around you. Warhol and the Pop Artists did the same thing, but in more abstract and conceptual ways, without all the super- and hyper-realistic details and over-the-top information that the other artists were painting. Just another mirror to make us look through.

My main problem with THE POLAR EXPRESS is not that they are trying to give us a new and creative way of looking at films, but rather that the filmmakers are suggesting that this is the end-all be-all thing to filmmaking in general. That what they are doing is the shiz-nit, man! And the fact that Zemeckis himself has suggested that what he's doing is not attainable by any animator:

"I think when you see the movie, you’ll realize it’s absolutely nothing like an animated movie,” Zemeckis said. “You’ll see such subtlety in the performance of these characters that you would have to have the genius-of-all-genius animators. In my opinion, there’s no animation in the world that could have created it.”

I'm surprised by Zemeckis's comments here. (You can peep the full article here.) Considering that he was important in bringing about the Second Golden age in Animation with WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT?, it's very disheartening for me to read this quote by him. It's the equivalent to the general population out there saying that you're the best artist ever if you render EXACTLY what you see onto paper. Which is complete crap. (Throughout my life I've encountered countless people who suggested to me that I was a better artist because I could draw exactly what I see.) But rendering is not the same as looking at something and depicting it a certain way that only you uniquely see it. Painter David Hockney has the best title to a book of his work, "That's The Way I See It". That sums it up for me as an artist. We artists are not here to visually re-render what we see in front of us, verbatim. Where's the fun in that? Cameras can do that already. We artists are here to interpret the world around us in ways that others may not have imagined. To offer something new to the table. To look at life around us through new and unique offerings.

I've established that the reasoning for hyper-realistic characters are not necessarily important, but I haven't talked about why exactly do these characters look so creepy. I'll have to do this in my next post. This one got too long! Stay tuned....

UPDATE: Click here for part two of Polar Express: A Virtual Train Wreck (conclusion).


Ward 2.0

After about 6 years I finally got new glasses. It was a monumental event for me as I was itching for a new look for... well, 6 years. At the time I got the new glasses, my hair was getting retched. Since I keep my hair relatively short, it starts to look iffy in just over a month. And since I use some sort of sticky hair wax stick to make my hair have that mussed-up-just-got-out-of-bed-but-still-look-cool look, it starts to have an adverse effect on my hair when it gets longer. The longer my hair gets, the more wax I need to put in it. Add the fact that I hate to shave and it'll be about a week before I do get around to doing it, I began to look like a street urchin, on the verge of asking somebody for some change.

So, yes, new glasses. I got a pair of those narrow retro-ish, yet contemporary frames that make me look like I'm ready to give a dissertation on the indie film I saw at Sundance last night. I like them. After getting my frames, a new haircut and finally getting around to shave - boy, did I feel like a new man! I felt like Ward 2.0. Ready for my new project! Bring it on!

But alas, it couldn't last. It never does, when you have your hair done up by a stylist, right? I couldn't get that look right, no matter how long I stood there in front of my mirror. And you'd think that it's easier with short hair? Not so. So now, after about 2 weeks, I was back to where I started. Only now, I look like a down-and-out filmmaker.


Ava's First Joke

Q: Why did the toilet cross the street?

A: To get to the cupcake treat!


My Birthday Booty

Another birthday has come and gone and this one was a doozy. It was probably one of my most memorable of recent years, probably because it was simple and it was the first time with our littlest one, Ezra. The gifts I received this year were all great, and I've been stealing time away from Andrea and the kids just to go over my stuff. Here's what I got for my birthday:

The Art of The Incredibles, by Mark Cotta Vaz. I've been pining for this one even before the film came out. I got to flip through it about a week before, and then quickly shut it, not wanting to know too much about the film and also wanting to really savor the wonderful artwork and drawings once I got the book. It remained at the top of my wish list for quite some time. Thanks to Mom and Joel for this one.

Some idiot posted up on the Amazon customer comments about this book saying that this was the "worse preproduction art" [sic] he's ever seen. (He says he's an art student, by the way, so that explains it. He's got lots of learnin' to do.) Being in the industry for 8 years, I'd like to think that I have some idea as to what is great preproduction art and what is not, right? I mean, afterall, art is subjective, at the very least, right? And I know that every person is entitled to their own opinion, but fur pete's sake - the artwork in this book is GORGEOUS. That boy does NOT know what he's talking about. Takin' crazy pills, I tell ya.

Anyway, I thought that it was very interesting that the main characters, the Parr family, were pretty much established a good 1 to 2 years before Brad Bird came to Pixar. And that they pretty much retained the same look and design throughout the course of the production of the film. Only Dash went through a major change. That's saying something about the character designs of Tony Fucile, Lou Romano, and Teddy Newton. All three worked with Bird previously on THE IRON GIANT, and it looks to me that the four have established a very strong bond when it comes to developing characters. Fucile's style is so smooth and shapely - I'd kill to animate these characters, in a traditonal sense, of course. But it's interesting to see how well his designs transferred over into 3D. They had this model maker, Kent Melton, do some very detailed models of the characters for the film and they are perfect.

I have to admit that I wasn't too sure about Teddy Newton's collages, but he does explain that knowing that these characters were going to be CG, he felt that the surfaces were going to play a major factor in the overall design, so he cut out shapes from images that had textures like flesh, hair, cloth, fabric, etc. He ends up with some very stylized and very abstract (at times) shapes that somehow come together and become Edna Mode, or Dash, or Elastigirl. The more I looked at Teddy's work, the more I was won over by it and the more I realize how brilliant it is. The work's so good that if you were to look at these pieces from far away, you'd still know right away who they were.

My favorite part of the book is the fold-out of the color design for the entire film, by Lou Ramono. It looks like some of these images were the inspiration for that ultra-cool end credit sequence for the film. Lou also did some great gouache work, which is not an easy medium to master. This is a fantastic book to own and I highly recommend it for anybody interested in character design and development, set design, color studies, collage work, etc., you name it. It's a great inspirational book for any artist.

The next gift I received for my birthday was The Mischievous Art of Jim Flora, by Irwin Chusid. My wife knows me so well. She knew I'd been pining for this book even longer than The Art of The Incredibles, as I've been a big fan of Flora's work for many years now. When I found out that they had put a book together of all his work, I was a very happy boy. Jim Flora is most known for his fantastical and whimsical album covers done for Columbia and RCA Victor during the 1940's and 50's. His work was first showcased in In The Groove: Vintage Record Covers, 1940-1960, but there was only a few album covers featured. Here, you get to see Flora in all his glory, from the album covers to the work he did for Columbia's Coda trade journal to his commerical work in magazines. He eventually went on to do children's books, but this book does not focus on that part of his career.

I've been very influenced by Flora, and one time I happened to have some of his album covers pinned up at work, when Doug, my boss walked in, talking to me about some ideas for a Primal Screen t-shirt. He looked up at Flora's work and said, "You know, we should do something like that." I was all for it. You can see my homage to Flora here. I created it in Illustrator, if you're curious about those things.

There's a great childlike quality to Flora's artwork, with some ideas that seem to come out of nowhere - ones that only Flora could conjure up. Childlike, primitive, striking, distinctive, influential - all these descriptions are hard to come by for just one guy, but Jim Flora was quite the revolutionary in my book. You should give this wonderful book a good lookie-through. Much love to Andrea for this one.

Lastly, my birthday hat-trick is complete with THE IRON GIANT Special Edition DVD. As I mentioned in a previous post, this is one of my favorite movies of all time, and I've been waiting for this special edition for about 4 years, not long after the movie was released in theaters. The DVD is no disappointment, that's for sure, with a great audio commentary by writer/director Brad Bird, story department head Jeff Lynch, Giant supervising animator Steve Markowski, and animator and character designer, Tony Fucile. Lots of props given as Bird and Co. are very well aware of the cooperative nature of the animation medium. The deleted scenes are a fascinating addition, with the Giant's dream sequence being the biggie here, as we get to see some insight as to the Giant's origin. My only caveat would be the "still gallery," as it's not really a gallery of images where you select from one to the next, but a short, 4-minute clip of character designs, backgrounds, etc. It would've been nice to be able to view the images on my own time, instead of having to press pause every 3 seconds. But HEY-I'm not going to complain here. I'm just happy to have this DVD in my grubby little hands finally. Again, thanks, Andrea. And sorry for playing this movie non-stop since the 24th.

A great birthday, indeed. After opening my gifts, and having cake and ice cream, the whole family went out to go see THE INCREDIBLES. Even Ezra popped his head up to watch at one point, but fell asleep in mommy's arms for the rest of the film. It was the first time all four of us got to see a movie together and it was great. Ava loved the movie and wants to see it again. I know I was a little worried about her being scared, but she was not fazed by it at all. It was a great ending to a wonderful birthday. Made me very proud to be a father and a husband.


Just who is this Ward guy, anyway?

I wasn't sure if I wanted to expose the "mystique of Ward" so early in the existence of this blog, but since it's my birthday today, I felt that maybe it was sort of appropriate. I know that most of you already know me personally, but there are a good many visitors to The Ward-O-Matic that have no clue who in the heck this Ward guy is. "What's his deal?" "Why should I care what he has to say?" Well, you don't have to actually care, but I do hope that you enjoy what I say. I'm having fun with this thing, and so I'm hoping that you do too.

I am an Atlanta native, but don't sound like I'm from the South. Whether that works to my advantage or not, I don't know. I'll get back to you on that. I grew up with a bad habit of getting obsessed over things. I'd get SO into something, and learn all about it, and then would move onto something else at the drop of a hat. I drove my teachers crazy, as I never could commit to a certain project, whether it be on Tutankhamen, cars, custom vans, sharks, dinosaurs, American Indians, airplanes, birds, the United States, maps, you name it. It didn't help that I pored over our World Book Encyclopedia set either, as that just fermented my desire to gather as much information out there as possible. I lived and died by that entire set.

I drew all the time. During my typical boy "gross" phase, I drew monsters, aliens, creatures, limbs and lots of blood! My parents just let me do my thang and my mom was probably praying each and every night that I would get over this crazy phase. I did...to a certain degree. I still love horror and monster films, sci-fi and special effects flicks. I'm not a die-hard fanboy for these things, but I just have a great appreciation and fascination for those types of films.

My dad took my sister and I to see ALIEN when it was released back in 1979. I was 11, she was 9. That movie gave me the most disturbing and horrific dreams imaginable. And thus, like any typical human being, once I was scared poopless by something, I instantly wanted more of it. I wanted to see it again. It was like a catharsis for me, helping me to face my fears, I guess.

My first animation I ever did was in 9th grade. It was for one of those career planning classes, as part of this IMPACT program. I was a terrible student for this, as I could never work on my project at school, so it looked like all I ever did in class was sit around and draw all day. There was practically nowhere to go for any animation help at this time in Atlanta, so my mom found this guy who was teaching an animation class to adults at nights as part of a continuing education sort of thing. Jim McLean was his name and he was very gracious in letting me borrow his camera and camera stand and lights. Why would this guy allow a 13-year old and his mother to take off with his equipment, I will never know. But, I eventually was able to produce a very short clip of a little guy walking and then having things happen to him, a la DUCK AMUCK. I loved all the Looney Tunes and whenever there was a situation where the characters broke the fourth wall and interacted with the viewer or creator, it was gold to me. I shot my project on Super 8 film, so it took forever to have the film sent off to be developed and then sent back. In the meantime, my teacher was getting furious with me, as the deadline for everybody's projects had passed and I still had nothing to show. I had to come in on a teacher's work day and set up my 8mm film projector and thread up and show my short film to my teacher personally. She flipped out. She loved it and couldn't believe that I had produced something that moved. Instead of the F that she was prepared to give me, she ended up giving me a C. This will be the first time of many where my talent saved my butt.

I dismissed art in high school because the art teacher was a fuddy-dud. When I realized that we would be doing basket weaving for the third quarter, I was out. Not for me. So I just drew Adam Ant, Billy Idol and Prince for my friends whenever they'd ask.

Throughout these years, I loved watching animation even when it was considered "uncool." This was the 80's, so animation was thought to be only for kids. There was not much to be excited about during this time, but when WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT? and THE LITTLE MERMAID came out in 1988 and 1989, respectfully, those films got that fire in me belly burning like nothing else.

So, what to do? I studied as much as I could on my own about this art-form by finding a copy of DISNEY ANIMATION: THE ILLUSION OF LIFE by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, two of Disney's Nine Old Men. Again, I pored over this book like it was going out of style. I studied animation in motion by frame-by-framing Tex Avery and Chuck Jones shorts, as well as afore-mentioned MERMAID. The more I learned, the more I felt like this was IT for me. I was hooked.

I had gone to several colleges at this point, but did not settle into a program until I got into Illustration at Georgia State University. I could not afford to go to art school, but GSU did have some classes on animation so I took this only option available to me. I was able to take two animation classes, Non-camera Techniques and Basic Animation. There was only one guy teaching these classes. His name? None other than Jim McLean! The very same guy who helped me out back when I was in 9th grade. He did not remember me specifically, but did recall loaning his equipment out. Jim was great. He was this 60-something old codger so full of zip and life. He really believed in me and my work. I owe a great deal of gratitude to him for getting me started in this crazy world of animation.

I graduated with a BFA in Illustration in 1995, with my portfolio focused entirely on gesture drawings, paintings of figures and anything that animation companies were hopefully looking for. I got an internship the following January at DESIGNefx, a design and animation company here in Atlanta (now defunct). After my internship, I was hired as a freelancer right away and worked there at DESIGNefx until the end of July. In August I got a gig at a new company in town, Click 3X, who then hired me full-time two months later. Needless to say, 1996 was a very good year for me.

So there. You pretty much know the rest. After my 4-year stint at Click, I got a call from Primal Screen, asking me to be their newest animation director. With a new baby on the way, they couldn't have called at a more appropriate time. It was a perfect fit for me. I've done my best work at Primal and cannot wait to see what else is around the corner for me there.

I'm married to my soulmate, Andrea, whom I met while going to school up in Cincinnati. We just celebrated 10 years of glorious marriage this year. She's a dance teacher as well as full-time mother, so she deserves a break. She also collects and sells vintage and vintage-inspired items at a booth at Kudzu Antiques in Decatur. I call her my secret weapon, as she has a great eye for design and knows exactly what looks good or not. She is honest with me about my work and I can always count on her for an intelligent, insightful response. We have two wonderful kids: a daughter, Ava, who's 4, and a son, Ezra, 5 months. Ava's got a sense of humor like I've never known, and Ezra has the brightest smile that you'll ever see.

So, I apologize for rambling on. Hopefully you've gained some insight to who this Ward guy is. As for me, I'm still trying to figure that out. But I do know this: my life has been a grand one thus far and I'm looking forward to 36 more fantastic years.

Have a great Thanksgiving!



Ava got to jump on her very first trampoline at her schoolmate's birthday party a couple of weeks ago. I took some great photos of this special occasion. This is just something I did based on one of the photos. It was a wonderful moment.

Sunday a busy day

Sketchcrawl is a term devised by Enrico Casarosa, a Pixar artist, where a group of artists get together and draw all day, walking around the city and drawing or painting everything that you see. It's a great idea, but I'm afraid that it may be too late for mentioning, since tomorrow, November 21st, is considered International Sketchcrawl day. But it's worth a try. If anybody is up for an Atlanta chapter for tomorrow, contact John Bridges. (Thanks to John for the heads up.)

Also a note of mentioning again, some folks are probably heading over to The Bremen for the Golden Age Comics exhibit the very same day, Nov. 21st. Sunday seems to be a very busy day around here in the ATL. Have fun, guys.


Gerald McBoing Boing!... on HELLBOY???

In what has to be the most obvious connection for animation and comics headz alike, UPA cartoons are finally available on DVD... on the HELLBOY DVD, of course! Now, don't you see the connection? It totally makes sense, doesn't it? I mean, it's so obvious!

Okay, I can't lie. It's just as perplexing to me as for the next galoot. So I decided to do some investigatin' on this matter. It seems that the director of HELLBOY, Guillermo DelToro, is a big fan of the UPA shorts, particularly the Gerald McBoing series. (And I guess that the character Hellboy is a cartoon fan, but since I don't read the comic I'm not so sure about that one.) And it was very convenient that Columbia TriStar, who released the film obviously owns the rights to the Columbia shorts library. (Jerry Beck says they have absolutely no clue what treasures they have in their vaults. No clue. And that is sad, as this may be the only way of seeing any classic UPA shorts on DVD.)

The shorts available are: the original Gerald McBoing Boing short, written by Dr. Suess, How Now Boing Boing, Gerald McBoing Boing and Planet Moo, and for a darker touch, The Tell Tale Heart, from the short story by Edgar Allen Poe. The transfers are the best I've seen of these films, which is not saying much, as these short films have not been given the restoration treatment that they deserve. Plus, I've only seen two of these four on a crappy VHS tape of Columbia short classics released sometime in the 80's (I think), and also in streaming video at this site. The Planet Moo short is in glorious Cinescope, which shows off the stylized backgrounds very well, but cannot save the story one lick (It seemed at this point they were searching for story ideas, and what was big at this point in time? Space! Hey! - I know, let's put Gerald in space! Yeah, that's it!). Just check out the very cool background here (full aspect ratio):

And I really loved checking out The Tell Tale Heart, which I'd never seen before. It's amazing how much tension and suspense the filmmakers created here with hardly any animation. Very cool. Worth checking out.

To find these wonderful gems, put in HELLBOY disc 1, and go through the menus until where it says: From the Den: Hellboy Recommends. (NOTE: This is for the 2-disc Special Edition. Not sure about the just-released Director's Edition.) Enjoy!

Gathering links

As you can see in the right column over there, I have an on-going list of links. I have a regular section of Linky links for animation resource, artists who've inspired me to get this blog going, and anything that I deem interesting and unique enough to warrant a mention. And then I have a list of links devoted to Atlanta Animation and Artists. Strictly local fare. I want to put up more links in this section, as I would like for The Ward-O-Matic to be a place of resource for local talent, where you can prop your feet up, grab a big fat cup of coffee and read some words and do some internet surfing, revelling in the sheer wonder that is Atlanta and its fantastic animation community. It's a grand vision, but I don't think that it's too hard to attain.

And so, I need your help to attain this goal. Know if any local animators or artists or studios with a website? I'd like to post their link. David Strandquest's Strangetoons does an excellent job of displaying a gallery of area artists, but I don't have the same capabilites. I would like to offer a one-stop resource for the Atlanta animation community. It's up to you to do your part in keeping this unique community alive and thriving! Contact me and you're halfway there.

Thank you and now get back to work.


Golden Age Comics at The Bremen

There is an exhibit at The Bremen called Zap! Pow! Bam! The Superhero: The Golden Age of Comic Books, 1938 - 1950. You can go directly to the page for it here. It's an ongoing thing from now through August 2005, with special events and programs to coincide with the exhibit, including....cooking classes? Umm, okay....anyway, there are some folks checking it out this Sunday, the 21st. I'm not sure if I can go, but if you would like to hook up with some (somewhat) respectable characters, contact me and maybe we can work something out.

I wish I had known about this, but Will Eisner was there last Saturday, at the Atlanta Jewish Book Festival, as part of this exhibit. That would've been something to check out. For more information about the Superhero exhibit at The Bremen, you can contact Phyllis Lazarus at 404-870-7684 or email her.


Make it an IRON GIANT day

For those who know me well, then this post will come to no surprise. Today is a day that I've been waiting for YEARS! Today is the day that Brad Bird's previous effort, THE IRON GIANT comes to DVD. Now, I'm not talking about the paltry 1-disc version that came out some 5 months after the movie's initial release in 1999. I'm talking about the Special Edition version, complete with 2 discs! This is something that I've known about since hearing of the first rumor floating around in late '99. The following year, there were more rumors flying around that Bird had completed recording his audio commentary to the film wherein many IRON GIANT fans began to drool profusely. Year after year, the Special Edition was delayed for no apparent reason (Warner Bros. are complete idiots, if you ask me) - we're talking about 4 long years, people. So now, FINALLY we have this wonderful DVD set available here on US shores for the first time, obviously delayed the most recent time just to coincide with Bird's THE INCREDIBLES. Warner Bros. are using "From the director of The Incredibles," tag line on the advertising, of course. But HEY - I'm not going to complain. That just means that more people will get to check out this amazing film.

Hmm, maybe I should do a multiple-post review about THE IRON GIANT, eh? Nah, I won't subject you guys to that. Anyway, go buy this DVD. Your inner Superman depends on it.



Last Thursday night, I attended a nice soiree at Crawford Communications for the guys of DAGNABIT! They were celebrating three years of being in existence and as anyone in this business knows, that's like 10 in animation-years. Quite an accomplishment. Congratulations, guys.

DAGNABIT! consists of John Ryan and Robert Pope, both of whom I worked with at my previous animation gig, Click 3X. The three of us flipped animation bond paper for about four years, until I left for Primal Screen in 2000. Ryan and Pope stayed at Click for an extra year before venturing out on their own with DAGNABIT! Before Click 3X, both Ryan and Pope were directors at DESIGNefx, where in the 90's, a large amount of the animation population in Atlanta had gotten some sort of experience there. (It's where I got my first internship and freelance gig.)

It was interesting working for those two guys, as I pretty much cut my teeth under their direction. John had more of a moving, illustrative style going for him, mastering Corel Painter, and at times could be found inking with real camel hair brushes. Robert was from the WB/HB/UPA/Marvel school, being the go-to guy for anything that required a clean, tight line. You would think that with such diverse styles that Pope and Ryan would mix as well together as oil and water, but they do make a good team, with both having a great knack for dealing with clients (of which I got to witness first-hand while at Click), and each owning a great appreciation for each other's talents.

So, here's to many more, guys. You done good.


The Imaginary World

I am a BIG fan of 1950's to 60's style, mostly if it is in the form of ads and commercials. There is something in the simplicity of the design that is so intriguing to me.

There is a great website, The Imaginary World, that showcases a big collection of pop culture artifacts from the 40's to the 70's in the Archives & Galleries section, and it was in there where I found this great collection of stills and storyboards from the Ray Patin Studios, a studio I had never heard of before. They did commercials in the 50's on into the 60's. It's especially nice to see the rough pencils and pastels of storyboards for these spots as most studios never really saved a lot of that work.

It's some pretty cool work to check out.


Nightmare Before Christmas: Revisiting (conclusion)

This is part 2 of "Revisiting an Old Bony Friend." Click here for Part 1.

More about the Design: (I'm such a geek for this film.)

Listening to the audio commentary on the film, director Henry Selick and director of photography Pete Kozachik talk about what movies they watched for lighting reference, as well as overall feel for the film, and NIGHT OF THE HUNTER was the biggie mentioned. Watching old black & white film noir was also a must, as well as classic horror films of the 1930's and 40's. And with this being stop-motion, the classic 1933 film KING KONG was mentioned as being practically a requirement to watch at least once a year for anybody within that particular industry.

And the influences show. The black shadows are a deep, dark BLACK, and the sets come across as some sort of German Expressionistic-meets-Tim Burton-meets-classic-Frankenstein amalgam. The lighting is sparce, but effective and very personal, as each character has their own lighting effect.

One thing I noticed, too, about the composition of the shots, was that they really played around with the camera, which was unheard of for stop-motion at the time. You watch Rankin Bass Christmas specials from the 60's and you'll see that the camera is very static, if not stationary at all times. Here, Selick and Co. moved the camera with almost ballet-like moves (thanks to motion-control cameras where the camera moves are programmed into the computer - this process was developed in the 70's, starting with Star Wars). The camera swings with great fluidity around characters, swooping up and over sets, gliding gracefully through this fantastical environment, with nary a glitch or snag in the movement. The camera itself becomes a character.

They also placed characters in extreme set-ups, like placing one character very close to the camera, with another far in the back. (See Sally and Jack above.) Sometimes hands or heads may move towards the camera in extreme close-ups, giving a very dynamic feel to the scene. You forget that you are watching puppets on a man-made set. (Although Ava did say at one point, "They look like Play-Doh, Daddy.")

There are a lot of up-shots, too, where the camera is looking up at the characters. To achieve this effect, sometimes they used forced perspective in the backgrounds, where they "cheated" the look by making the tops of the buildings seem farther from the camera than they really are.

The Characters.

(I just love that guy shown above. He's one of my favorite characters in the movie. Who is he? Why, he's the Harlequin Demon, voiced by Greg Proops, he of "Who's Line Is It Anyway?" fame.)

Bony skeletons, patched-together rag dolls, vampires, evil scientists, werewolves, demons, ghouls, all somehow coexist in this fantastical Halloween Town, and they all somehow feel like real flesh-and-blood people - like the creepiest neighbors that you've ever had. And that is very important for the filmmakers to establish here - that these fabricated puppets with latex foam and clay actually act and feel like your closest neighbor. And these neighbors are of the sweet, misunderstood monsters kind, similar to the monsters of those old Hollywood horror films from the 30's and 40's. They don't mean any harm, just like to scare, that's all.

And this is where it gets good.

One of the strongest story arcs in this movie is with Sally's love towards Jack. I've hardly found a more intense relationhip in an animated movie, and the fact that the characters are not drawn speaks volumes about the skill and hard work done by the animators. Now, we've all experienced a secret crush towards someone, haven't we? But would you actually jump out of window for this person? Before she commits this act, we see Sally (voiced by Catherine O'Hara) standing at her window, staring out at Jack's house. You can sense her yearning for her unrequited love, by her eyes and that certain tilt of the head. The animator for this scene did an excellent job in conveying this emotion, as Sally stands there, without a word. (Danny Elman's score adds excellent support to this scene as well.)

Once she jumps, there a macabre shot of Sally on the ground, broken in pieces. Quite a morbid visual, but since we know that she's a rag doll, Selick says that it was important for the camera to pull down rather quickly so we could see her eyes open and realize that she's okay. But that initial shot, of Sally broken apart, is a particularly strong image, as it is almost a literal interpretation of someone who experiences a crush and realizes that her love may not be reciprocated. We all go through personal moments in our lives where we "fall to pieces" over someone special, whether it be a simple crush or a whole 9-yards type of relationship.

The most intriguing character in NIGHTMARE is, without a doubt, Jack. From his opening woes about being tired of doing the "same old thing," to finding Christmas Town and getting a rush of excitement from that magical place, Jack Skellington is the one character who goes through the most emotional issues. I love it in the town meeting sequence where he tries to get to the "heart of the matter," as Selick describes, to explain Christmas to the townspeople. He wants them to feel the same sweet, warm emotions that he felt while in that special town, but, alas, they do not get it. And when he envisions himself as Santa, Selick says that "he doesn't have to understand it, he just has to do it." He wants to take over Christmas and do it better than Santa.

Well, we all know that it doesn't go as planned. Oh sure, Jack has the best intentions - he gets all the people into it with the decorations, the musicians, making the presents, going through all the right motions to provide the best Christmas ever. And what a great sequence that is, "Making Christmas," eh? Great gags of the Halloween Town inhabitants getting ready for the Big Holiday intercut with the busy-bee workers of Christmas Town. It's in the townspeople's nature to make those presents scary - they don't know any other way! Henry Selick said that Burton's original intention regarding the Halloween Town characters was that they are well-meaning, but misguided individuals. Much like the movie monsters of old.

But Jack is blind to the reactions of the "real" world to their special Christmas gifts. After he is shot down by the military as an "imposter," we see Jack draped across a graveyard statue in a cemetery, providing the film with the most poignant image. Here, he laments about his failure as the New Santa, that he just wanted to give them something great. And who doesn't have this desire for themselves? We all want to do our best in life, whether it be at work, at home, personal goals, or whatever. Here, Jack is bared and beaten and he's not used to such feelings. After all, in Halloween, he's the best, the king, and he always delivers. Here, he's been humbled and now open, he lets it all out, questioning himself, "What have I done?" I love this scene. It is my favorite of the film after all these years because of Jack's vulnerability and the ability to figure out what he did wrong and to get back out there and do better. What great pathos and turmoil for a "mere" cartoon character. I love his "moment of truth," as he realizes that after going through this fiasco, that he now can give it all his might for next year. It's all a part of the artistic process that no matter what you go through during the process, it will greatly impact the final outcome. It's all about learning from your mistakes, and to gain knowledge and to forge through any machinations of creativity, whether it be doubt or fear of failing, and then producing something that lays testament to your experience. Jack is now a "new" Jack, not at all bored with he being just the Pumpkin King, but filled with new ideas that will scare the pants off the people for next year. What a great invigorating testimony.

I hope you enjoyed enduring my long discourse on THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS. It's been something that I've always wanted to write about and now hopefully you'll be able to watch the movie in a new, if not different, light. If you haven't seen the film recently, it's always worth revisiting an old bony friend.


Nightmare Before Christmas: Revisiting An Old Bony Friend (part 1 of 2)

This post was supposed to be my first initial entry for this blog, aside from my introduction post, but after seeing THE INCREDIBLES the other night, it was immediately bumped from my list. Something to be said for gut reaction, I guess. But I must say that it seems appropriate to write about NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS right after writing about Pixar's newest flick because I had the exact same gut reaction back in 1993 when Tim Burton released this wonderful little gem to the masses.

When NIGHTMARE came out, I was working as a booth projectionist at our local movie cineplex, and I was the only one there who had any remote knowledge of this film and what it was all about. We did a big promotional campaign, complete with a 14-foot Jack Skellington towering over the hallway entrance (constructed by yours truly, of course). Anyway, on opening weekend, the film actually SOLD OUT several evening shows, which blew us all away. No one saw that coming. It was such a different movie that no one expected it to do so well opening weekend. Looking back on it now, I can see that it probably did so well because it was so different. Nothing was quite like it at that time, and now, I can honestly say that there is still nothing quite like it.

Time to revist an old bony friend. Once NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS came out, it immediately became one of MY movies. A movie that friends and family members would know right away that, yup, that's a Ward movie. Unmistakably quirky, wonderfully designed and completely full of heart, I knew right away that this movie was going to be one of my personal favorites. (I ended up seeing that film in the theater about 8 times.) So why am I taking this trip down memory lane? Well, you can thank Ava for that one. Last year I introduced her to the movie, but being just 3, she didn't get past the first 10 minutes. Bored immediately. Round two, I showed her the DVD box of NIGHTMARE this year, and she's interested. Yes, it's a go! She liked it so much, she ended up watching that movie about 5 times a day up until Halloween. (Sorry, Andrea.) This gave me a chance to take a really good second look at this gem of a film, one that I've held so close to my heart for just over a decade.

And what is it about this movie? Why is it a slow evolving cult classic, now being shown at various theaters across the nation during Halloween? Why is there more merchandise now for this film than when it was first released? Well, I would say that the allure of NIGHTMARE is strong on two fronts: design and overall look of the film, and the endearing quality of the characters.

The Design.

Coming from the mind of Tim Burton, from an old short poem he wrote while at Disney in the 80's, NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS has the unmistakable style that is pure Tim Burton: creepy and macabre yet filled with wit and whimsy. As a child, I LOVED Halloween. Not just for the candy alone, but for all the ghouls and ghosts, the creatures, the skeletons, the horror, the blood! I got overly-creative in some of my costumes at times, but what 8-year old does not go over-the-top for Halloween? It was all in good fun, of course. And here, Burton was able to retain that very same enthusiaism and fun that 8-year old boys have for the holiday and convert it into a full length animated film. Having Henry Selick direct the film was a very wise decision, with Selick sharing some of the same quirky ideas towards Halloween and animation in general as Burton. (Selick did a lot of those odd stop-motion animated intersitials for MTV back in the 80's, and Burton, of course, started his career in stop-motion animation. Kindred spirits, indeed.) With spiral hills, tendril-like trees, wonky buildings, character-shaped homes, all have that classic Burton style. The production designer for the film was Deane Taylor, and he, along with Barry E. Jackson and their crew were able to incorporate a graphic black and white storybook style into real, three dimensional sets and characters. No small feat. And they made it look so authentic, that I swear this world of Halloween Town and Christmas Town could actually exist. So believable and so tactile. And every single prop, character and set was made exclusively for the film. Nothing was ordered or bought from a speciality store, everything was handmade! (I guess there is no Stop-Motion Mart around.) There's something to be said for good ol' fashioned ingenuity and talent, huh?

End of part 1. Click here for Part 2.


Mad Props

I'm forcing my brain to focus on something other than THE INCREDIBLES right now, (I've already seen it again!) as I feel I must give some props to Jerry Beck and Amid Amidi for mentioning The Ward-O-Matic on their most excellent website Cartoon Brew. I've been a big reader and supporter of their respective individual sites, Cartoon Research and Animation Blast for a long time now, and when these two combined forces to create Cartoon Brew, I knew that it was a good thing. I've corresponded with both several times throughout the years, and I finally got to meet Amid at the Ottawa International Animation Festival, earlier this September. (Despite what you may hear, he's a really swell guy.) Both are incredibly busy men, writing books and organizing ASIFA screenings, etc., so I am very very honored that they took the time to plug a widdle ol' fledgling blog like mine. A big hearty thanks, guys.


The Incredibles: One Incredible Film

SWEET MOTHER OF CINEMA! I just got back from a midnight screening of Pixar's THE INCREDIBLES and my head is still swimming from all the eye candy that was projected up onto the screen tonight! This is what movie-making is all about, people. This is what movie-goers want to see: a full onslaught of pure movie magic. The boys and girls of Pixar have been cutting their teeth on previous endeavors all for this film, my dear friends. And I can honestly say that they have now graduated to the next level. In my opinion, they have reached that peak of animated brillance and bliss that it would be difficult for them to fall. My only fear now is that they may not be able to top this film. The pressure is on now for Lasseter and Pixar's next animated feature, CARS - slated for release in 2005. Whew! Whadda ride, folks. I cannot stress to you how much fun I had at this movie! I think I gotta take a moment to regain my composure....

Okay, first off, I'm a father of two: a 4-year old daughter, Ava, and a 4-month old son, Ezra. My girl has seen her share of animated films in her short lifetime, all thanks to me, of course - but I must say that this movie is not for the young kiddies. The director, Brad Bird, he of THE IRON GIANT fame (need I say more? This guy needs to be cloned so we can have more movie directors like him making more honest-to-goodness great films), has been quoted as saying that THE INCREDIBLES is not for young kids. If you think that your kids will be easily scared in action films like STAR WARS or RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, then they will not dig this film. There are major moments of peril, several with children involved. The enemies are real and will kill the protagonists - just keep that in mind. Most likely, there are still going to be parents out there that will go and take their wee-ones to this film, just because it's animated. Because, let's face it - animation=children's films, right? Um, NO, and that's what Brad Bird is trying to do here. Starting with the FAMILY DOG short back in the 80's and then with his work on THE SIMPSONS and then, triumphantly, with THE IRON GIANT. He's been trying to break that preconcieved mold that many in the animated film-making biz fall prey to. What Bird made here is a legitimate FILM. Not just a "family film," but an action film that just happens to be animated. (Check out a great interview with him at The Onion here.) And I feel bad telling Ava that she can't see the movie as she's got a little crush on Dash, the young boy Incredible. "I like him, Daddy. I like Dash."

As for the look and design of the THE INCREDIBLES, you can almost feel all the sweat and toil that went into the art production for the film. From the grey mundane suburban life that Mr. Incredible must endure, to the brilliant, saturated colors of the remote island, everything looks like the filmmakers poured their heart and soul into it. And I'm buying The Art of The Incredibles book as soon as possible. (A detail of the cover is seen at the head of this post.) Go get it now. There's some fantastic artwork in it, but a word of caution for the virginal-movie-types - the ones who don't want to know any major plot points and surprises when watching a film - there are some spoilers in the book that may ruin it for you. So just buy the book after seeing the film. I highly recommend it.

Everything about this film was top-notch: the character design and development, the animation, the special effects, the story arcs, the action, the ambiance of every set,... I could go on and on about this film. (And with this being my first review for a film on The Ward-O-Matic, it's making me look like the WORST reviewer EVER. I almost feel like one of those no-name reviewers from podunk nowheresville, whom film companies quote repeatedly, especially if the movie is a big fat stinker.) I'm almost gushing like a little schoolgirl here about her latest crush. And in reality, I AM gushing about my latest crush. I've got such a film crush on THE INCREDIBLES right now, I find it hard to think about anything else.

There are moments in this film where I was so excited that I actually wanted to giggle with glee! What kind of movie can make me do that? (Answer: not many.)

For the few that may not like this movie, I must say, what more could you possibly want? At what level of perfection do your movies need to be? I had so much fun that I absolutely must see this film again right away. Now, how am I going to convince my wife this, when we barely get the chance to see ONE film a month? Hmmm....

I want to write so much more about THE INCREDIBLES, but I'll have to hold off until everybody's had a chance to see this truly amazing film. Last thought: I guess that every animator's goal in his career is to have a character so loved that it would possess someone to actually dress up in full costume at a midnight screening of your film. And to the crazy chick who dressed up as Elastigirl at the screening last night: good for you! It just made the night all the more...uh, appropriate? odd? well, fitting for us animation freaks. Thank you.

RATING: (Movie as a whole) 5 out of 5. (Repeat factor) Oh, you betcha. Very VERY high.


This is The Ward-O-Matic

So, I know what you're thinking: another stinkin' blog??? But I figured, hey- since everybody's doing it, why not me? I've got some interesting things to say about the world I see around me, I'm sure that somebody's bound to be interested in reading about what I have to say, right? Well, that remains to be seen, but I'm willing to take the chance. So here goes...

This is The Ward-O-Matic, an account of art, animation, music, movies, books, design, illustration, and the aesthetics of modern culture as viewed by me, Ward Jenkins, an animation director here in Atlanta, Georgia. I'll focus on what interests me, what influences me. I also plan on focusing on the animation community here in this town, as I feel that there's not enough exposure in that regards. Like most cities I've found, the local animation establishment is a very close-knit group, not quite unlike a "family" of sorts. Even in a smaller animation city like Atlanta, however, this family often preys victim to weak communications, so with this blog, I hope to alleviate that problem.

Another arena I plan on focusing on is my family. I know that most blogs are either one of two things: personal or news/informative. I don't see the two mixing that much, (at least the ones that I read) so I want to try something different here by incorporating these two together. Because the way I see it, my family plays a big factor in what influences me and plus, they are aesthetically pleasing to my eye. Biased, yes, but afterall, this is my blog.

Things that interest and influence me. What interests and influences you? I'd like to know, and I'd like to showcase it here. Please feel free to contact me here at the Ward-O-Matic and let me know what you dig.