Tag Archives: book review

Mini-review: Ben Mitchell’s “Independent Animation”

Ben Mitchell’s book “Independent Animation: Developing, Producing and Distributing Your Animated Films” arrived while I was in Amsterdam. Ben is an animation journalist at Skwigly as well as an animator in his own right. His book chock full of war stories and advice from independent animators across the world – you’ll find Adam Elliot (“Harvie Krumpet”), Bill Plympton, Signe Baumane (“Rocks In My Pockets”), Nina Paley (“Sita Sings The Blues”), PES (“Fresh Guacamole”), Jonti Picking (Weebl) and many more talking about their experiences with funding, making feature films, development process, distribution and everything else. I’d highly recommend it to anyone outside of the major studio system looking for inspiration and guidance on the broader task of making animated films.

Reading’s over, now to make!

Over June, July and August I’ve been watching a lot of cartoons, reading a lot of books and generally inhaling. Owing to certain winter-related health problems (back injuries), I don’t like racking up too much extra sit-down time on top of my day job. This winter – between freaking out, calming down, moving out, settling in and resting up – was a great opportunity to pay my dues and dig into books and DVDs I’d bought long before but not had a chance to enjoy.

But the weather’s warming up again. Now it’s time to put all the stuff I’ve read about into practice.

I started drawing again on Sunday and it turns out I’m really rusty. I feel like I’m going to be held back on the visual side of things if my drawing doesn’t improve. So that needs work. Cartoon Animation is back off the bookshelf again sitting in plain view to remind me I need to put in the hours again with my drawing. All hail Preston.

I’ve started writing down the Tex Avery cartoons that the animation examples appear in too. Well.. the basis for the animation examples anyway. The skipping squirrel on pages 112-113 is straight out of Screwball Squirrel.

Writing, thankfully, is less of a problem for me: the synopsis for The Quiet One which I wrote at the tail end of August is now blooming into a full-blown treatment. The opening sequence is at first draft and already one annoying story hole is offering to close itself neatly. Good story construction is problem-solving and I bloody love that kind of problem-solving.

If I could recommend another couple of books for the end of winter, though…

  • The Cartoon Music Book – what it says on the cover, and how! As comprehensive a series of essays and interviews as one could hope for on the topic of music and cartoons, from the orchestras of the 1930s all the way up to Ren and Stimpy’s amazing use of library music. I’m taking my time getting through this one. No rush.
  • The War of Art, by Stephen Pressfield. The author of The Legend of Bagger Vance tells it (somewhat) like it is – in the War of Art, the enemy is Resistance. The third part of the book lost me with its talk of Angels and Muses – the foreword, by “Story” author Robert McKee, admits to being in the same boat – but clearly it works for him, and the first two parts aren’t lessened in the slightest. If you want to devote your life to making stuff but you can’t get it together, read this book. It may just be the no nonsense short sharp kick up the arse paradigm shift you need to get going. (The follow-ups Turning Pro and Do The Work are also on my reading list.)

The War of Art combined with something like The Now Habit would probably be an even more powerful kick up the arse. The War of Art is shorter and more philosophical while The Now Habit is more thorough and scientific. Good complements to one another.

Maybe you could even triple team The War of Art, The Now Habit and the Pomodoro technique… cripes…

Anyway. Much to do. Works to create, craft to hone, technology to master, stories to tell, characters to bring to life, weight to lose, better physical fitness to attain, all that..

Even more books

So. More reading. I’ve become a voracious reader instead of a maker of things. Reading voraciously was OK for a while but now the lack of my own new stuff to look at is starting to bother me. I’m itching to get back into making again. Winter’s over with.

I got a chance to take in a couple of very different approaches to screenwriting.

What I took away from “The Writer’s Journey” by Christopher Vogler was that Ye Olde Joseph Campbellesque Mythic Journey Structure can be used in a much more modular way than you’d think. I’ve already said I’m not intending on writing stories which need a mythic journey arc, but now my mind’s a bit more open. Even in the context of writing more contained short stories, it’s definitely worth a read.

Then it was time to check out the infamous Save The Cat! trilogy by Blake Snyder. Heralded by some as the reason that big-budget Hollywood movies play it so safe, over three books the late Mr Snyder describes ten basic genre types, talks about a story-writing process that starts with a catchy logline, outlines a story beat sheet with corresponding screenplay pages, analyses many movies in aforementioned genres into their story beats, and basically wants very much to teach you how to write a script that’ll sell.

All while being very perky and Hollywood.

I checked out STC! out of morbid curiosity and I’ll admit to liking it – even the way it shamelessly trashes Memento for not grossing very much at the box office. Snyder’s feels like the kind of advice that’s great to start out with but then you build on it with your own experience.

I probably took more away from STC! than TWJ – I love a good list and the beat sheet and genre lists are killer. (The genres are not “Action”, “Horror”, etc. They’re descriptions like “Monster in the House”, “Fool Triumphant”, “Institutionalised” and “Superhero”.) I liked the practicality of it as well. There’s a lot of story problem solving advice in there. The energetic enthusiasm of it all was also welcome after the somewhat sour and pissy “everything these days sucks” rant at the beginning of McKee.

Now that it’s become a cult favourite, its advice has spread pretty far and wide. The next time I see a movie I’m going to make a mental note to check whether the exposition is accompanied by some witty distraction like swimming pontiffs or goons with a desperate need to urinate. That’s one of the tips in his book.

Hah. I just realised the first time Luke picks up a lightsabre in Star Wars and waves it around, Obi-Wan is busily expositing about this and that.

Anyway. The Save The Cat! books are enjoyable and their wisdom will very likely prove useful. They’re definitely not the be-all and end-all of writing a screenplay – no book really can be – but they feel like a firm springboard to further discoveries. I honestly doubt I’m ever going to be shopping spec scripts around Hollywood any time soon but STC!’s advice can be freely used all sorts of different ways.

Speaking of which, I’ve written a six page synopsis. The log-line would go something like:

A shy and sensitive engineer travelled halfway across the galaxy to escape his own kind and work among like minds, but now an old acquaintance desperately needs his help.

Working title: The Quiet One.

If I can work up the entire story to be as killer as the final shot of the final scene, it’ll be worth many late nights and weekends in to make it happen.

I like bears in cartoons. Today I was reading about the animation studio UPA and it turns out Mr Magoo’s first appearance was alongside a mischievous bear in the short “Ragtime Bear”. Here it is.

UPA’s story is pretty fascinating. Especially how their staff kept getting turned over to HUAC as communists - by Walt Disney of all people. Walt’s alleged anti-Semitism has no firm basis in history, but reading When Magoo Flew it’s clear he was no fan of what the USA quaintly referred to at the time as “communism”. (Though Walt wasn’t exactly running a studio from the sea floor and asking new employees if a man was not entitled to the sweat of his brow. Bet he would have if he’d had the chance though.)

Then again, for a capitalist in 1950s USA it probably made good business sense dobbing in a rival studio as a haven for communists. In Walt’s case, there were also some convenient personal vendettas to settle.

At any rate, reading “When Magoo Flew” I’ve gained a whole new appreciation for UPA. Certainly, modernist cartoons aren’t for everyone, but the tack that UPA took - no talking animals, no brutal violence, a modern graphic look - distinguished them from their peers and won them a few Oscars to boot.

Speaking of funny…

I read a couple of good books on joke writing yesterday which complemented one another surprisingly well.

  • The Serious Guide To Joke Writing by Sally Holloway. Sally is British. The book details how funny things can be written about anything from puns, wordplay, stream of consciousness and something she calls the Surrealists Inquistion, reframing particular subjects and topics from different points of view. Her background is writing for topical weekly comedy shows and teaching - practical chapters relate classes she’s taught with particular methodologies and exercises, and theoretical chapters relate everything from background brain processing to how to motivate yourself to write about comedically unlikely subjects. Useful and actually pretty encouraging - it’s nice when people leave their detritus lying around in plain view as though to demonstrate wading through your own crap looking for gold is part of any worthwhile creative endeavour. (Which it is.)
  • Step-By-Step To Stand-Up Comedy by Greg Dean. Greg is from the USA. Greg’s book is more about stand-up comedy than writing comedy for other people to perform, but a solid first chunk of the book is given over to his own joke-writing methodologies. Starting pretty much with “this is how a joke works”, he goes on to show how those jokes can be collected, assembled, refined and performed. The joke writing section is not as broad or detailed as the one in What Are You Laughing At? but this is OK as Greg’s much more concerned with synthesis (making up new stuff) than analysis (accounting for current stuff). Even though I’m not planning on getting into stand-up anytime soon, this was still a worthwhile read.

“The Serious Guide” is broader and deeper in terms of its methodology and a bit gentler while “Step By Step” makes the reader more conscious that jokes are individual elements of a whole. Added to the different cultural and working backgrounds of the authors, this makes the two books an interesting double-bill.

Some of the Amazon reviews of the English book complained that it began with puns and wordplay, and they wondered if cultural differences could be coming into play. As an Australian (whose inherited culture is at a point somewhere between the UK, the USA and Australia), I’d say that would appear to be the case. There’s a slightly aging middle-class sense of humour amongst the British that cherishes a good pun with inordinate amounts of affection - personally I tend to stare blankly at most verbal puns and visual puns make me groan a bit as well.

So. Reading so many different books on comedy has left me with three different perspectives on what it’s all about. That’s fine. I like differing perspectives on the same thing - I’m a pluralist at heart, the same as nature - and it’s interesting to see what changes and what stays the same between the different points of view. Conciseness, specificity, triplets, a set-up establishing some tacit understanding which is surprisingly subverted by a punchline - there factors are pretty consistent.

Where it gets really interesting for me is relating this sort of stuff back to my favourite cartoons and seeing what sticks. For instance, what is Tex Avery up to in Bad Luck Blackie which has common ground with Eddie Murphy’s Aunt Bunny falling down the steps (NSFW audio)? I wonder…

More reading

I’ve been reading every night. Still.

  • Composing Pictures started going a bit over my head but I held on until the end – it went beyond concepts I could artistically relate to or something. I was tired. I think like Preston Blair’s Cartoon Animation series, it’ll be one of those books that’ll make more sense once I actually need its advice. (I swear Cartoon Animation teaches me something different every time I read it.)
  • Painting With Light by John Alton was great. Dense yet not overpoweringly so – empoweringly so, if anything. Makes me wonder how many of the suggested techniques (flags, gobos, etc) can be done virtually… and it’s actually kind of a delightful read to boot, especially the bit about taking a cruise. It turns out, bonus susprise hooray, that one of John Alton’s most acclaimed DoP gigs The Big Combo is in the public domain and free to watch on Archive.org. For a B movie it’s pretty solid and it looks awesome.

On Monday I woke up and watched Roman Polanski’s 1974 movie Chinatown. (Word to the curious: Never do that to yourself. Ever. That movie will sneak up on you and cut your heart out – and it’s a lot to handle first thing on a Monday morning.) Later that day I watched Dial M For Murder. The movies were worlds apart – both are pretty dark, but Chinatown’s just plain old gut-kickingly bleak while Dial M is darkly funny, even if by the end of it all I felt quite sorry for Grace Kelly’s character.

Looking back, there’s been something decidedly heightened and consciously theatrical in the feel of Casablanca, Dial M for Murder, Rear Window and The Maltese Falcon – these are pictures that want to show their audience a good time. There’s a kind of lightness to them compared with movies today – it’s not that you don’t ache for Rick’s heartbreak in Casablanca, worry about what’s going to happen to Grace Kelly in aforementioned Hitchcock films…

It feels like a slightly different contract between creation and audience these days. People got more cynical and broad-minded, maybe? I don’t know. What I do know though is that those old pre-1970s shows still work just fine on me, even as a patron of the 21st Century. Maybe it’s just that movies these days are over-committed to technical perfection, substance, spectacle and/or universe credibility. Maybe that’s why people don’t write cartoons much like they used to – because people don’t make films or cast actors like they used to either.

Also I want some sort of robotic pet that speaks in the dulcet tones of Peter Lorre. I may have mentioned that. If you don’t know who Peter Lorre is, here he is doing a rant sounding suspiciously like a certain future asthma-hount chihuahua. Also he was the basis for the stereotypical mad scientist from many Warner Bros cartoons. Anyway, imitations are one thing but all the little nuances and twists in his actual speaking voice are immensely appealing to me.

Anyway. Last night I was going to start on “The Writer’s Journey” (hey alright, monomythic writing and stuff) but I decided after watching noir all day I needed something more comedy-oriented. To that end, I read through a couple of impulse buys off Kindle (“Buy with 1-Click” is a fiend):

  • Tex Avery: Hollywood’s Master of Screwball Cartoons by Jeff Lenburg – Enjoyed it, learnt a lot but wanted to give Tex manly hugs by the time I finished it. Probably not worth the ~$20 asking price but it was an interesting account of Tex’s career through Walter Lantz, Warners, MGM and beyond. I was possibly very slightly particularly thoroughly annoyed that Rock-A-Bye Bear didn’t rate anything more than a passing mention.
  • What Are You Laughing At?: A Comprehensive Guide to the Comedic Event by Dan O’Shannon. A nifty book by a veteran writer that goes into a whole thesis of comedy via what it calls “comedic events”. Fascinating, insightful, and very likely true enough to be useful. Hopefully it sunk in.

Frankly more people who write comedy “how-to” manuals need to get their stuff published as e-books so I don’t have to wait more than a week to read what I buy. Oh well, they miss out.

Time to get tonight’s reading underway.