Cartoon Brew Films is here!

March 15, 2007

Goody, goody, goody! Today, Cartoon Brew‘s Amid Amidi and Jerry Beck officially launched CartoonBrewFilms.com: making “the world’s finest animated shorts available for convenient download to your iPod and personal computer.”

If the first three shorts are any indication, we’re up for something really special here! Ever wondered how an independent, adult short from the guys at Disney and Pixar would look like? Just take a peek at the color board below. Boys Night Out by Teddy Newton and Bert Klein feels like sexual education with Gerald McBoing Boing.

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Go check it out for yourself. The shorts cost $2,00 each–a pretty good deal if you ask me. This initiative deserves all the support it can get!

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Boys like Peet are not afraid of wolves

February 16, 2007

Below is my second contribution to Jim Emerson’s Contrarianism Blog-a-Thon, running all weekend at Scanners. My earlier contribution can be found right here.
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The best animated picture of 2006 wasn’t made by Pixar, Disney, DreamWorks, Blue Sky, Warner Bros. or Sony Pictures. It didn’t feature any talking or dancing animals. It wasn’t directed by Nick Park, Hayao Miyazaki or George Miller. It’s neither CGI nor drawn. Hell, it wasn’t even released in the US last year.

Last Christmas I was out shopping with my two sons. We visited the local electronic store looking for a new microwave oven, when I suddenly had this creepy sense of being stared at. I looked on my left to a wall covered with about fifteen giant flat-screens, all tuned into the same broadcast, and saw a pack of wolves staring right back at me, moving in perfect sync. It was a moment straight out of a dream.

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‘What’s that?’ I whispered when I noticed that my boys were as fascinated as I was.
‘A wolf!’ said my oldest, who’s always had a weak spot for dangerous animals. ‘It’s a puppet.’
I nodded and thought to myself: stop-motion animation. Our eyes were glued to the silent TV-screens. Apart from the wolf-puppet, we saw an intense-looking kid wearing a brown leather hat, a bird, a cat and a duck.
‘I think it’s Peter and the Wolf,’ I said, remembering the cassette tape of Prokofiev’s classical work I used to listen to as a kid. It simply had to be, and yet… it couldn’t be. I knew Peter’s giddy string theme by heart, and it didn’t match at all with the pale, brooding puppet I saw before me…

I got home, started googling and learned about an ambitious 29-minute short called, yes, Peter & the Wolf. Five years in the making. Produced in Poland. Shot on high-definition cameras. Directed by a female Brit by the name of Suzie Templeton. Music performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Mark Stephenson. Apparently, it premiered at the Royal Albert Hall last year alongside a live performance of the orchestral score. Being the animation enthusiast that I am, I couldn’t help wondering why I’d never heard about this project before.

Two weeks later, the DVD arrived from Amazon.co.uk. The boys and me sat down before the television and we pressed play. What we witnessed was an outright masterpiece.

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You see, as much as I enjoyed listening to that Prokofiev tape as a kid, a part of me was always a little let-down by the paper-thin story. Frankly, I couldn’t care less for the bird, the cat and the duck. It took ages for the wolf to arrive! This adaptation, however, took all these familar ingredients and made them work in every single way. The characters had been fleshed out properly, just like the action, and the lavish production design, the exquisitely sculpted puppets (not too cute!) and gorgeous cinematography were simply flawless.

In an interview for The Independent, director Templeton explains:

I had to work out how to visually tell the story, how to arc it and stretch it to the music, so that it keeps the viewer’s attention, and doesn’t just fill time but builds visual sequences that correspond to each musical theme.

Templeton’s first stroke of genius was to get rid of the traditional narration. As a true visual stylist, she decided early on to let her images do the talking, which meant that words and dialogue were ruthlessly abandoned. Mind you, we’re talking about half an hour of pure pantomime here! But wait, there’s more: Prokofiev’s world-famous composition – obviously the backbone of the whole enterprise – doesn’t start until six minutes into the movie. Instead of using the musical themes to establish the basic story elements, we’re familiarized with Peter’s ghoulish, claustrophobic world by listening to the howling wind on the other side of the fence, and the creaking backdoor that his overprotective Grandfather keeps firmly locked. It’s only after the tormented boy finds a way to sneak out of the house and into the woods where sunshine hits his face, that the string theme sets in as a breath of fresh air. Cinema doesn’t get more cinematic than this.

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I could go on and wax rhapsodic about the beautiful frozen lake; about the muted color palette and the wide range of fabrics and materials that makes every shot a feast for the eyes; about the intricate sequence where Peter catches the wolf (an almost Brian De Palma-worthy set piece) and hundreds of cinephiliac moments crammed inside those 29 minutes. A personal favorite is when we hear the English horns play the wolf’s theme for the very first time. Instead of cutting to the approaching wolf directly, Templeton dares to show a 30 seconds long close-up of Peter, sensing the wolf’s presence. It’s a perfect set-up for the drastically altered ending – which I won’t reveal here – that would have Carl Jung clap his hands with glee.

The tag-line for this adaptation is “Boys like Peter are not afraid of wolves.” Now that I’ve seen Templeton’s film, I know why: Peter is the wolf.

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Peter & the Wolf – a co-production of UK’s BreakThru Films and Se-Ma-For Studios in Lodz, Poland – is available on region 2 and 5 DVD only and can be ordered here. Go ahead, you won’t be disappointed. It’s worth buying a region-free player for. To see an early short by Suzie Templeton, visit AtomFilms.


It’s brilliant, and it’s French!

September 5, 2006

Somebody came up with an answer to my question about a brilliant piece of animation found on YouTube. No one less than Amid Amidi, the animation Oracle writing for the consistently eye-opening blog Cartoon Brew, found out about the people behind the scenes of Minuscule.

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Amid writes:

Turns out that MINUSCULE is a TV pilot co-created by Hélène Giraud (production design) and Thomas Szabo (direction). The show has been picked up and they’re currently creating 78 dialogue-less 6-minute shorts chronicling the adventures of the entire insect kingdom. The production company is France’s Futurikon and the series is slated to air in the US on Disney Channel.

There is justice in the world after all! Can’t wait to see the other 77 shorts. Thank you, Amid!


It’s brilliant, but what is it?

August 24, 2006

It has become something of a family habit lately to watch YouTube cartoons before bedtime. On my vacation address in Denmark, after a little browsing under the key words “Tex Avery” (yes, I raise my children well), I bumped against this absolutely brilliant 3D-animated short. It’s splendid to look at, laugh-out-loud funny and my boys and me got a huge kick out of it when we played it with the volume cranked all the way up… but what is it? Can anyone tell me who made this? The YouTube title is Minuscule – The Ladybug, but it lacks any kind of credit.


Cars: the prequel

July 19, 2006

I love Pixar, but their latest feature is nowhere as radical as this little gem from 1952. It never ceizes to amaze me how far Tex Avery pushed his animation. And what a wonderful ending!

UPDATE:
Well, this post seems to have kickstarted a spontaneous Tex Avery blog-a-thon! For more Tex, visit these links:


UPA’s Gerald McBoing Boing

July 5, 2006

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About three months ago, inspired by screenshots posted at Amid Amidi’s eye-opening Cartoon Modern blog, I ordered the brand new DVD of UPA’s Gerald McBoing Boing. It features four of the finest-looking animated shorts ever produced, back from a time when the whole idea of limited animation was considered an artistic vision, rather than a cheap and easy way to increase productivity.

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From a ’50s design standpoint, these cartoons are astonishing. Director Robert “Bobe” Cannon had a very Tati-esque sense of environment and mise-en-scène that makes every frame a joy to behold. McBoing Boing‘s use of minimal shapes, jazzy movements and shifting color schemes, coupled with its sheer unwillingness to conform to the laws of reality (perspective, gravity, naturalistic detail, any logic at all) made it a radical departure from the painstaking realism that Walt Disney championed at the time.

No wonder, since UPA was founded by John Hubley–a former-Disney animator who, along with a number of others who left Disney after the animators’ strike in 1941, felt that the medium of animation had been forced down a narrow path by simply trying to imitate reality. Anyone of you who’s ever read my article on “the plausibles” will know how much I believe this observation applies to cinema in general.

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I’m not sure how many of you have childhood memories of characters like Gerald or Christopher Crumpet, but the work of UPA is hardly known in Europe. Overshadowed as it currently is by the immensely popular cartoon libraries of Disney, Warner Brothers, Hanna-Barbera and MGM, one can only hope that the rest of these forgotten gems will find their way on a DVD collection soon.

In the meantime, some of UPA’s best shorts can be found on YouTube. For your convenience, I collected some of them on one page. Let’s start with a taste of Gerald McBoing Boing right here: