Archive for the 'Animation' Category
The Frodo Franchise
The Frodo Franchise, my book on the Lord of the Rings film phenomenon, is now available for pre-order from Amazon or directly from the University of California Press. It should be in bookstores in August. The cover illustration above is by the wonderful caricaturist Victor Juhasz. Check out another example of his work here; I especially like the image of Jack Nicholson.
(In New Zealand, The Frodo Franchise will be published by Penguin New Zealand, also in August. I’ll add a link to their website when pre-orders become available.)
I’ll be writing more about the book and the Lord of the Rings film between now and August, including, I hope, reporting from Wellington during David’s and my visit to New Zealand in May.
The Hobbit: Faint signs of movement
The April issue of Wired (I can’t find this on their website as of now) has a brief interview with Bob Shaye (p. 88), whose second feature film as a director, The Last Mimzy, was released on March 23. Naturally the subject of the Hobbit film gets mentioned.
On October 2, in the infancy of this blog, I discussed Peter Jackson’s other projects and whether they allowed him enough leeway to take on directing The Hobbit. I suggested that he had built considerable flexibility into his apparently crowded schedule. At that point it looked as though he might well get the offer.
Then, on January 13 I reported on Shaye’s recent declaration that because Jackson was suing New Line concerning money possibly owed him from Fellowship of the Ring and its related products, the director would not be making The Hobbit for New Line (and MGM, which is co-producing the film).
Since the flutter of anger expressed over that decision, there has been virtually no news on the subject. Now, asked by Wired about his January statement, Shaye replied, “You know, we’re being sued right now, so I can’t comment on ongoing litigation. But I said some things publicly, and I’m sorry that I’ve lost a colleague and a friend.”
Wired then asked, “Is The Hobbit still a viable project?” Shaye responded, “I can only say we’re going to do the best we can with it. I respect the fans a lot.”
Given that a large majority of the fans consider Jackson’s direction key to the film being the best New Line could do, perhaps we’re getting a hint that Shaye is relenting.
Matt Zoller Seitz and friends in Newsweek!
Matt’s site The House Next Door sends us business every now and then, and it was a treat to see it mentioned in “Blog Watch” in the April 9 issue of Newsweek (also online): “‘The Sopranos’ returns to HBO on April 8, and mob fans can’t wait to get deep inside the remaining episodes. For insightful commentary, check out mattzollerseitz.blogspot.com.”
Congratulations, Matt and company!
David’s film-viewing activities do not go unnoticed
Lester Hunt, who teaches philosophy here at the University of Wisconsin, has been blogging about students who don’t take notes in class. He considers, not unreasonably, that they should take notes. Not everyone agrees with him, however.
Lester defends his position staunchly in a new post, “Why you should take notes,” citing David’s note-taking and shot-counting during movies as evidence to bolster his case. As the one who often sits beside David during his very active viewings, I can testify that Lester’s description is quite accurate.
Ebertfest coming up
Jim Emerson’s Scanners blog provides information about the upcoming Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival (next year to be officially renamed what many of us call it anyway, “Ebertfest”), April 25-28. As Jim mentions, David and I are among the guests, and you can read the opening of my program notes for this year’s silent-film-with-live-musical-accompaniment presentation, Raoul Walsh’s Sadie Thompson. Along with others, we’ll be pitching in to try and fill in for Roger as he continues to recover from his health problem of last summer.
Fortunately Roger will be able to attend. As he writes in his recent description of his progress, “I think of the festival as the first step on my return to action.” The first of many such steps, I hope. We all look forward to 2008, when he will move once more to center stage as the heart and soul of Ebertfest.
Aardman’s new home
Finally, I have groused about how DreamWorks failed to exploit the potential of British animation company Aardman’s product. (See here and here.) Distributing films like Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-rabbit and Flushed Away, Dreamworks showed little inclination to try and turn Aardman into a brand comparable to Pixar.
Now, after the January split between DreamWorks and Aardman, Variety announces that the latter has signed a three-year, first-look arrangement with Sony Pictures Entertainment. The deal sounds promising, with Aardman expanding its Bristol facilities and stepping up the rate of production. The plan is to release a film every 18 months.
[Added April 11:
The print version of the Variety article (April 9-15 issue) is distinctly longer than the online one linked above. Author Adam Dawtrey's description of DreamWorks tends to confirm my belief that the company handled its Aardman deal badly: "If you knew nothing about British toon studio Aardman except what DreamWorks saw fit to tell Wall Street every quarter, you might wonder why Sony was so eager to pick up where Jeffrey Katzenburg left off ... Yet the multi-Oscar-winning claymation specialist had no shortage of suitors before settling on a new three-year deal last week with Sony Pictures Entertainment."
Dawtrey points out that Chicken Run grossed $225 million worldwide, the Wallace & Gromit feature took $192 million, "and even the maligned 'Flushed Away' managed $176 million. The fact that Aardman's pics ... do the majority of their business outside the U.S. clearly bothers Sony much less than it did DreamWorks."
The first two films cost less than $50 million apiece to make, while Flushed Away cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $140 million. Dawtrey adds, "The fact that Aardman execs don't even know the precise cost of 'Flushed Away' betrays just how much control they ceded to DreamWorks by moving production to Los Angeles. It was a doomed attempt to find a transatlantic compromise that would salvage the relationship, but the result left both sides frustrated."]
DreamWorks Animation decided to “concentrate on just two major releases a year.” That means just blockbusters, with no need for the more eccentric Englishness of Aardman.
Sony, on the other hand, wants to expand its animation and family-oriented product. The CEO and chairman of SPE, Michael Lynton is quoted as saying, “Aardman Features is enormously popular around the world. We believe that their strength is their unique storytelling humor, sensibility and style and we plan to bring their distinctive animated voice to theaters for a long time to come.”
Of course, intentions are always good at the beginning. Whether Sony can let Aardman be Aardman and help the company’s films achieve the success they deserve remains to be seen. I certainly hope so.
Plus it’s good to hear that one of the four features Aardman has in development is another Wallace and Grommit project. Break out the Wensleydale!
Why are Americans polarized between francophobia and francophilia? Some people mock the French for liking Jerry Lewis, when most French people probably don’t even know who he is. Others think that France is the repository of world culture and represents the finest in writing about the arts, even though the Parisian intelligentsia can be pretentious and hermetic.
But we must face facts. When it comes to cinephilia, the French have no equals. They grant film a respect that it wins nowhere else. Spend a year, or even a month, in Paris, and you will feel like a Renaissance prince. This is a city where one lonely screen can run tattered prints of One from the Heart and Hellzapoppin!, once a week, indefinitely.
My first trip was too brief, only a week in 1970, but my second one—four weeks of dissertation research in 1973—left me exhausted. Reading Pariscope on the way in from the airport, I learned about a Tex Avery festival. I checked into my hotel and Métro’d to the theatre, where I and a bunch of moms and kids gazed in rapture upon King-Size Canary. Another time, also coming in from the airport, Kristin and I passed a marquee for King Hu’s Raining in the Mountain. Next stop, Raining in the Mountain. My memories of The Naked Spur, Ministry of Fear, Liebelei, Tati’s Traffic, and Vertov’s Stride Soviet! are inextricable from the Parisian venues in which I saw them.
Sound like a lament for days gone by? Nope. You can find the same variety on offer today. Of course the two monthlies, Cahiers du cinéma and Positif, have to take a lot of credit for this. Add Traffic, Cinéma, and several other ambitious journals, and you get a film culture unrivalled in the world.
Critics from Louis Delluc onward have led thousands of readers toward appreciating the seventh art. Historians like Georges Sadoul, Jean Mitry, Laurent Mannoni, Francis Lacassin, and others have enlightened us for decades. Academic film analysis would not be what it is without Raymond Bellour, Noel Burch, Marie-Claire Ropars, Jacques Aumont, and a host of other scholars. Above all stands André Bazin, the greatest theorist-critic we have had.
And the books! Arts-and-sciences publishing receives government subsidies; the French understand that books contribute to the public good. There are plenty of worse ways to spend tax dollars (e.g., trumped-up military invasions). The French, like the Italians, have created an ardent translation culture too. If you can’t read something in Russian or German, there’s a good chance it’s available in French.
I was reminded of the glories of Gallic film publishing when the mailman tottered to my door this week with twenty-two pounds worth of recent items I’d ordered. I haven’t even read them yet; otherwise, they’d be filed with Book Reports. Instead I want to spend today’s blog celebrating them as fruits of an ambition that has no counterpart in English-language publishing. All are grand and gorgeous and informative to boot.
A biographical study of a Gaumont director still too little known. Perret was second only to Feuillade at Gaumont, and he performed as a fine comedian as well. His shorts are charming, and his longer works, like L’enfant de Paris (1913), remain remarkable for their complex staging and cutting. After a thriving career in France, Perret came to make films in America, including Twin Pawns (1919), a lively Wilkie Collins adaptation. He returned to France and was directing up to his death in 1935.
Although the text seems a bit cut-and-paste, Taillé has included many lovely posters and letters, along with a detailed filmography, full endnotes, and a vast bibliography. It compares only to that deluxe career survey of the silent films of Raoul Walsh, published by Knopf. . . .Oh, wait, there’s no such book. . . .Think there ever will be?
A luscious catalogue of an exposition tracing visual sources of Disney’s animation. Illustrated with sketches, concept paintings, and character designs from the Disney archives, this volume shows how much the cartoon studio owed to painting traditions from the Middle Ages onward. It includes articles on the training schools that shaped the studio’s look, on European sources of Disney’s style and iconography, on architecture, on relations with Dalí, and on appropriations by Pop Artists. There’s also a filmography and a valuable biographical dictionary of studio animators.
Some of the affinities seem far-fetched, but after Neil Gabler’s unadventurous biography, a little stretching is welcome. This exhibition (headed to Montreal next month) answers my hopes for serious treatment of the pictorial ambitions of the world’s most powerful cartoon factory. The catalogue is about to appear in English–from a German publisher.
Jean-Pierre Berthomé and François Thomas. Orson Welles au travail. Cahiers du cinéma, 2006. 4 lbs.
The authors of a lengthy study of Citizen Kane now take us through the production process of each of Welles’ works. They have stuffed their book with script excerpts, storyboards, charts, timelines, and uncommon production stills.
The text, on my cursory sampling, will seem largely familiar to Welles aficionados; the frames from the actual films betray their DVD origins; and I would like to have seen more depth on certain stylistic matters. (The authors’ account of the pre-Kane Hollywood style, for instance, is oversimplified.) Yet the sheer luxury of the presentation overwhelms my reservations. A colossal filmmaker, in several senses, deserves a colossal book like this.
In the same series as the Welles volume, even more imposing. If you want to know the shooting schedule for Alphaville or check the retake report for La Chinoise (these are eminently reasonable desires), here is the place to look. Detailed background on the production of every 1960s Godard movie, with many discussions of the creative choices at each stage. Once more, stunningly mounted, with lots of color to show off posters and production stills.
Anybody who thinks that Godard just made it up as he went along will be surprised to find a great degree of detailed planning. (After all, the guy is Swiss.) Yet the scripts leave plenty of room to wiggle. “The first shot of this sequence,” begins one scene of the Contempt screenplay, “is also the last shot of the previous sequence.” Soon we learn that “This sequence will last around 20-30 minutes. It’s difficult to recount what happens exactly and chronologically.”
The avoirdupois champ of my batch. The French were early admirers of modern Hong Kong cinema, but their reference works lagged behind those of Italy, Germany, and the US. (Most notable of the last is John Charles’ Hong Kong Filmography, 1977-1997.) More recently the French have weighed in, literally. 2005 gave us Christophe Genet’s Encyclopédie du cinéma d’arts martiaux, a substantial (2 lbs.) list of films and personalities, with plots, credits, and French release dates.
Newer and niftier, the Gouneau/ Amara volume covers much more than martial arts, and so it strikes my tabletop like a Shaolin monk’s fist. There are lovely posters in color and plenty of photos of actors that help you identify recurring bit players. Yet this is more than a pretty coffee-table book. It offers genre analysis, history, critical commentary, biographical entries, surveys of music, comments on television production, and much more. It has abbreviated lists of terms and top box-office titles, as well as a surprisingly detailed chronology.
Above all—and worth the 62-euro price tag in itself—the volume provides a chronological list of all domestically made films released in the colony from 1913 to 2006! Running to over 200 big-format pages, the list enters films by their English titles and it indicates language (Mandarin, Cantonese, or other), release date, director, genre, and major stars. Until the Hong Kong Film Archive completes its vast filmography of local productions, this will remain indispensable for all researchers.
Mme. Edelhaus was my high school French teacher. A stout lady always in a black dress, she looked like the dowager at the piano during the danse macabre of Rules of the Game. She was mysterious. She occasionally let slip what it was like to live under Nazi occupation, telling us how German soldiers seeded parks and playgrounds with explosives before they left Paris. When I asked her what avant-garde meant, she replied that it was the artistic force that led into unknown regions and invited others to follow–pause–”in the unlikely event that they will choose to do so.”
For three years Mme. Edelhaus suffered my execrable pronunciation. When I tried to make light of my bungling, she would ask, “Dah-veed, why must you always play the fool?”
I suppose I’m still at it. But thanks largely to her I’m able to read these books as well as look at them. She opened a path that’s still providing me vistas onto the splendors of cinema.
Creature Comforts: The Brood.
On December 6, 2006, I commented on a Variety article which suggested that DreamWorks was probably going to sever its distribution pact with the British animation firm Aardman. The reason was the poor box-office performances of Wallace & Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit and Flushed Away.
At the time I claimed that DreamWorks had not done a good job promoting either film, despite its earlier success with its first Aardman release, Chicken Run.
Now, as Variety predicted, on January 30 Aardman announced that they would no longer be distributing through DreamWorks. The official press release on the firm’s site states:
“We’ve enjoyed a hugely successful and creative relationship with Jeffrey and DreamWorks Animation,” stated Peter Lord and David Sproxton, co-owners of Aardman Animations, “but both companies are aware that our ambitions have moved apart, and it feels like the right time to move on. Aardman has an ambitious slate of feature film projects in development and will announce their future production and distribution plans shortly.”
Variety’s coverage of the split quotes another Aardman spokesman, Arthur Sheriff: “The business model of DreamWorks no longer suits Aardman and vice versa, but the split couldn’t have been more amicable.”
The report notes that Aardman is currently making a series of seven episodes of an American version of its hit British TV show Creature Comforts. (The two seasons of the British series are available on DVD.) CBS ordered the episodes but has not yet announced when they will be aired.
Variety’s article remarks, “Skein could be another test of whether U.S. auds have cooled on Aardman’s claymation style and quirky British humor, which stands in sharp contrast to the fast-paced, jokey CG toons of DreamWorks and most other American animation studios.
This looks like a case of blame the victim. American audiences haven’t had much of a chance to warm up to Aardman’s style. DreamWorks made little or no attempt to promote Aardman as a brand or to make the signature characters, Wallace and Gromit into stars as familiar as Shrek. (I’ll take the penguin in The Wrong Trousers over the ones in Madagascar any day.) Maybe DreamWorks subscribes to the peculiar notion that there may be too many 3D animated features in the market. Or maybe becoming a subsidiary of Paramount has made its executives determined to stick to the tried and true and exploit the Shrek franchise until it drops below its target income. Or both.
I suppose the ideal would be for Pixar/Disney to pick up the American distribution of Aardman’s future films. John Lasseter and company know how to sell a toon.
Back in my December 10, 2006, entry, I discussed some reasons why CGI animated features often seem better than their live-action competition.
In passing I mentioned that industry news sources were discussing whether there were too many CGI films made last year. “Studio executives and commentators continue to debate whether there are now too many CGI films coming out. Indeed, the November 24 issue of Screen International says, ‘Much has been made this year of the seeming over-saturation of studios/computer-generated titles, with critics and analysts pointing to growing movie-goer apathy.’”
I realize that industry pundits have to have something to write about at year’s end. Unlike the critics, they don’t have the ten-best lists and who-will-win-the-Oscar options, so they assess box-office trends. One year indies suddenly are in, the next year the big sequels have surged back, and the next year the indies are back. To read the trade papers, one would think that trends come in neat one-year cycles. Maybe studio executives plan their upcoming films according to these supposed trends, but films being greenlit now will only appear years in the future. By then the cycles will have turned over and over.
The “too many toons” issue looks to me like a tempest in a teapot. If you look at the various box-office lists for 2006, CGI animation did better proportionately than live-action films did.
Let’s start at the bottom. The December 25-31, 2006 issue of Variety ran Nicole LaPorte’s “2006: H’w’d diagnoses its duds.” (I’d link to the online version, but it seems inexplicably to have disappeared from Variety.com.) There she talked about the 10 biggest failures of the year. Despite the title, the diagnosis and choice of films was done not by studio employees but by an “inhouse Variety poll.” To be included, films had to be relatively big-budget items that could plausibly have been hits on the basis of the track records of their directors, stars, or source material. (e.g., Lady in the Water, Poseidon, A Good Year).
One animated feature made the list: Flushed Away. I have already expressed my liking for this film and made some suggestions about why it undeservedly failed. Presumably it is a coincidence that DreamWorks’ head of marketing is leaving the company to set up on her own. She had presided over many hits for DreamWorks, and her new firm will continue to work with its releases. Still, the Variety story announcing the move refers to the lackluster performance of Flags of Our Fathers but does not mention Flushed Away or earlier Aardman films.
OK, so one of ten flops as designated by Variety staff members was a CGI feature. Nine of them are live-action films.
Now let’s go to the top of the list. The ten highest domestic box-office grossers in 2006 included four CGI hits: Cars, #2, Ice Age: The Meltdown, #7, Happy Feet, #8, and Over the Hedge, #10. On the worldwide chart, these four films rank high as well: Ice Age: The Meltdown, #3, Cars, #5, Happy Feet, #10, and Over the Hedge, #11. In the domestic market, 6 other toons make the top 100. So, 4 out of 10 toons are in the top ten, while 6 out of 90 live-action films make that short-list. I’m no math whiz, but that looks like 40% versus 6.6% to me.
Of course, as I pointed out back in the infancy of this blog, grosses aren’t the best measure of success. How much a film cost obviously determines how profitable it will be. Casino Royale, the #9 domestic box-office pull in 2006, took in $164 million—it is unanimously hailed as a hit, but it cost a reported $150 million to make. There’s also the factor of “prints and advertising”: how much it costs to order thousands of copies of a film and how much is put into the various forms of publicity. As I noted, P & A costs are seldom announced.
Recently, however, Kagan, a company with access to proprietary industry figures, put out its list of the 10 most profitable films of 2006. (Only films that “open wide” are included. That used to mean something like 500 or 600 theaters, but as more films come out on thousands of screens, the term has become pretty vague.) Kagan does factor in P & A expenditures alongside the filmmaking budget to determine a figure for a film’s total costs. It also has a formula to calculate the total income from all major forms of distribution: not just theatrical box-office, but DVD and the various other video and TV income for a film. The result is about as accurate a notion of profitability as we outside the industry are likely to get.
Going by Kagan’s reasonably reliable profitability figures, how do animated features stack up? We all know that CGI is expensive. A live-action feature that depends very heavily on computer trickery might spend as much as half its budget on special effects.
Surprisingly, CGI animation can be profitable. Kagan pronounced Ice Age: The Meltdown the most profitable film of 2006. With total production, marketing, and other direct costs of $256.4 million and an estimated $1.05 billion worldwide gross from all distribution channels, the proportion words out to 4.11 on the “Kagan Profitability Index.” (A film generally is assumed to be profitable if it achieves a KPI rating of 1.75 or more.)
Three other animated films made the top ten on the Kagan KPI list: Cars was the 8th most profitable film, Over the Hedge the 9th, and Happy Feet the 10th. These figures are all the more remarkable when one considers that a high proportion of tickets sold for animated films tend to be at the lower children’s admission prices.
The real question isn’t really whether there are too many animated features coming out. It’s actually how large the G and PG markets are. Live-action films come in all ratings, so they are not all competing with each other. R-rated horror films compete with other edgy teen-oriented movies but not with family-friendly holiday movies. Toons tend to compete with each other, but they also compete with G and PG live-action films. Flushed Away was not done in because it opened on the same weekend as another CGI toon. It presumably sank partly because it was released on the same day as The Santa Clause 3.
In 2006, live-action films for children didn’t do as well among domestic grossers as animated ones did. Night at the Museum was #5 with $205 million, but the next highest film of this type, The Santa Clause 3, took in $84 million to end up at #22.
Bottom line—and that’s what we are talking about here—there doesn’t seem to be a glut of animated films so far. Let’s see what Shrek 3 and the other CGI toons of 2007 lead the pundits to diagnose a year from now.