The Art of Finding Dory Review

While I am happy vacationing in Spain the first 2 weeks of July I thought it would be fun to post a couple of reviews of animation art books I own. If you don’t have an art book it’s pretty self explanatory. It’s a book that explains and shows the art behind a particular film. These are not limited to animation (Marvel, DC and Star Wars for example have them) but all that I own are. I might not be quite as quick to respond to comments as I usually am on these art book posts because I will be gone. Have patience with me and I hope you enjoy them!

The first book we are going to look at is from the most recent animated release, Finding Dory.  It is the Art of Finding Dory.

P1500021It’s kind of interesting because this art book has a preface, introduction and forward. The preface is by John Lasseter and he talks about the first time Andrew Stanton pitched Finding Nemo (“You had me at the word fish”) and then Finding Dory (“Nemo had as its canvas the entire ocean, but Dory expands that world even more…where even the plainest quarantine tank is lit by intricate caustics of light playing along its walls and floors). That emphasis on light and how it was used by the artists is a big theme of this art book.

The forward by director Andrew Stanton is quite moving. It shows the emotional connection he had to Dory from get-go. He says “Dory was  lost. Most people overlook that fact…You see, Dory was looking for her family, too, only she had forgotten that fact. Dory had been lost for years, no knowing where or when that tragic separation occurred. I’ve always wanted to believe every audience member sensed that longing in her- that a fish with short-term memory loss, wandering the ocean alone, couldn’t truly be happy”. I know feel thoroughly guilty for never thinking that much about Dory- the poor fish! I’m so glad Andrew Stanton told her story because clearly he was very moved by it and it shows in the finished film.

Finally, the introduction by author Steve Pilcher, pencil and marker man on Finding Dory, shares his perspective on the design of Finding Dory. “The way shapes, color and light worked together to support the intent and focus of a shot became a carefully coordinated balance from sequence to sequence, shot to shot”.

You can tell The Art of Finding Dory is written by a technician like Pilcher because it is very technical but I found that fascinating.

The first part of the book is all about the production design. They focused a lot on lighting and how the ocean illuminates things differently than on the land/tank sequences.

P1500022I really liked pages that showed the sketching process to making Finding Dory.

P1500027They then have tons of information on character design for both small and larger characters.

P1500025Next we get tons of storyboards showing the evolution of the film’s story. I love looking at storyboards. It reminds me there are men and women actually drawing this stuff!

P1500028Finally we get to see the layout of the Marine Life Institute and all the small details from the flags, maps and signs.

P1500032They designed everything for the park- even stuff you don’t really see like the Kidzone bag you see above. That’s so cool!

P1500029If you liked Finding Dory then I think you will definitely like the Art of Finding Dory. It’s beautiful to look at but very enriching as well. I learned a lot about computer animation and the Pixar brainstorming process.

Let me know if you get to check it out what you think. Thanks!

Is Film More Art or Literature?

filmI’ve been thinking about something today and I wanted to throw it out to you guys for discussion. Lately I’ve seen a lot of bad movies and it’s got me asking  question-

Is film more art or literature? With some of these bad movies it’s tough to make the case they are either (I’m talking to you Adam Sandler!), but some like Alice Through the Looking Glass have decent artistry but are still failures. So it got me thinking…

Let me lay out the arguments on both sides.

The Case for Art

There’s obviously a visual component to film which places it in the art category. Photography is clearly art and film is basically moving photographs. However, there are very few films that can exist on the strength of the art itself. Don’t you think art needs to be somewhat self-sustaining?  Like when I go to a museum and see a statue I don’t need lots of text about said statue to appreciate the art. It’s a beautiful statue. I look at it and know that to be a fact.

However, with film that is usually not the case. With the exception of a Fantasia or a Terrence Malick film, a movie must be more than just pretty images to be appreciated and enjoyed. You could have the most beautiful imagery ever put to film and if the story is weak the art is a failure. I can’t think of any other artistic medium where that would be the case.

Perhaps you could make an argument that ballet is a visual art that requires context but even then I think the individual dancers mastery can be appreciated in a ballet. I certainly appreciate Gene Kelly’s artistry in his ballet in Singin’ in the Rain that has nothing to do with the plot.

All that said, when I think of my favorite movies the artistry is so obviously there- especially in animation. A film like the Little Mermaid had a million bubbles drawn by hand. How can that not be art? But then again I certainly have favorites like When Harry Met Sally and You’ve Got Mail which aren’t significant art films.

But I look at something like this it is so clear- film is art:

The Case for Literature-

Let’s be honest how often do we get a Tree of Life, a film which is so clearly art?  Most of the time it is much more muddled and commercial. There is a strong case that film is much more literature than art.

If you think about it the basis of most movies is literature- a script or screenplay that tells a story. Most people don’t consider a play art and yet how is that different from a movie? Sure the sets might be considered art in a play but not the play itself.

Most movies require dialogue and a story to be effective. You can have the most beautiful imagery and if the story isn’t good most of the time the imagery won’t be appreciated.

Many people would consider one of the great American movies to be Paul  Thomas Anderson’s There Will be Blood. While there are many striking moments in the movie most of the gripping scenes involve the dialogue and the insane performance from Daniel Day Lewis. Look at this scene. It’s just 2 men talking in a simple room:

Combo Films

Of course you have those films that are so clearly a merging of both art and literature.  I think that is why so many people loved Birdman. It satisfied the artistic impulse with the long tracking shots and visual style while having a story that many could relate to with its critique of superhero fandoms and celebrity. (I am not a Birdman fan but I did like this aspect of it).

But I think most of us lean more to one side or another- we see movies as art or we see them as storytelling. This impacts our enjoyment of certain films that lean more heavily to one side or another. I personally tend to see it more as art, so a movie like Boyhood doesn’t have a complex narrative it doesn’t bother me. I focus on the small moments and the way the images are teaching me about life rather than fixating on the everyday story.

I certainly can appreciate a dialogue heavy film but if I had to pick one side I’d go with art. Of my favorite movies (Up, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Little Mermaid are my top 3) they aren’t the most amazing stories in the world but the characters and artistry I love.

You might not think it matters but I think it does. It impacts what films we are likely to see and appreciate. Again Boyhood is an example. Last year’s Carol or The Revenant also come to mind being artistically bold but not the greatest stories I’ve ever heard. Even a movie like Avatar, those who see film as art are more likely to appreciate it than those on the literature side. Wall-e is another film that those with more artistic interests tend to appreciate more than plot-driven moviegoers.

We could even make that argument with this year’s superhero  movies. Those who see film as art more likely to go with Batman v Superman. In contrast, those that see film as literature more likely to go with Captain America: Civil War with it’s witty dialogue.

What do you think? Is film art or literature? What side do you land on?

Cheatin Review

cheatin10A few days ago I posted my belief that “whether 2D, 3D, stop motion or live action it all comes down to the story“.  I genuinely believe that to be true for 99% of films but like any rule there are exceptions. Some films are obviously an excuse  for art and the story takes a back seat.  Usually to work these types of films have to give us something new.  They have to be over-the-top and challenge us artistically otherwise the movie doesn’t work.  Fantasia, for instance, gave us something new.  Something that has never been topped artistically to date. Another example, last years Rocks in My Pockets did have a disturbing and profound story but it still took a back seat to the imagery presented.

This years Cheatin’ is another example of such an artistically bold film. It is not a film for everyone.  It is challenging and like most new things a little tough to digest but I’m glad I saw it.

Created by animator Bill Plympton, Cheatin’ tells the story of a beautiful woman named Ella who is tired of superficial men. To her chagrin she gets wrangled into attending a carnival when she wants to just read her book.

cheatin21Eventually she is convinced to ride the bumper cars but there is an accident and she is trapped. Fortunately, she is rescued by a jock type named Jake and they instantly fall in love.  None of this is done through any real dialogue but through music, opera, grunts, screams, yells, sighs and other expressions.

cheatin19The artistry throughout is just beautiful.  I mean look at this shot.

cheatin18So they get married and Jake is completely loyal to Ella.  However, a woman who is in love with him stages a photo to make it look like Ella isn’t faithful to him.  This breaks Jake’s heart.

cheatin16With his broken heart he falls prey to temptation and becomes a serial adulterer.  These scenes are fairly graphic for an animated movie.  But they are so non-realistic that I wasn’t really offended but I can see that others would be.  The music is amazing throughout in mixing opera, jazz and the score by Nicole Renaud.

Meanwhile Ella is devastated at her husbands cheatin ways and fantasizes what she wants to do to him.

cheatin14In her remorse she stumbles upon a magician who has a special machine that will allow her to enter the bodies of the women her husband is seducing.

cheatin11The magician knows this is a mistake but she sneaks in and does it anyway.

cheatin13Eventually Jake realizes the photo was a phony and that he was wrong about Ella but it is too late? We don’t know.

cheatin15Cheatin has an interesting back story.  Bill Plympton raised over 100k on Kickstarter to make the movie and backers received the film in August of last year.  This is why it was submitted to the Academy and Annies for 2014. (I guess that means it is out of the running for 2015?).

All the animation was drawn by Plympton himself which is kind of amazing (40,000 drawings all done by him!).  What an artist! A staff of 10 people then did the colorization and compositing.  It’s hard to believe so few people and such a tiny budget could make a film like this.

If 2D proponents are looking for signs of hope the Cheatin’ Kickstarter success and the quality of this movie should give it to them.  Hullabaloo animated project got over 400k in only 1 month of fundraising with a goal of 80k so there’s that as well.  Not half bad!

But back to the movie.  It is challenging.  It is different but I like films like that.  The story isn’t much but it is audacious and bold enough in the visuals to not need it.

I think if you watch the trailer and it looks like you’d hate it you probably will.  If it looks like the type of art you like and something interesting then give it a shot.  You’d be supporting a small animator trying to do something in a big pond. I was more than happy to throw $10 his way to buy it on demand. $4.99 to rent.

Overall Grade- B+, Content Grade- C

Movie 3: Fantasia

fantasia poster

Production- (If you want to read about the segments skip down to Segments)

In modern movies typically we see a hit followed by a million imitators.  Not the case with Disney.  Even in later, more commercial years they followed Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast with the different feels of Aladdin and Lion King.  However, this was never more true than in the early years.  A mammoth hit of Snow White was followed by 4 films that couldn’t be more different- Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo and Bambi.

Fantasia was the 3rd animated feature film by Walt Disney Studios and it is a bold undertaking to be sure.  Originally Walt was worried the character of Mickey was going to be forgotten by the public and even the studio.  As his master creation Walt didn’t want this to happen and had developed an idea for the Sorcerers Apprentice.  Music had been written and the concept had been drawn.

Unfortunately Disney was left with only a short, so he got the idea to create a series of shorts that would build off of his Silly Symphonies series- pairing animation with classical music.

In the end Fantasia was 8 sections including intermission and 8 pieces of music (the intermission has notes but the last segment has 2 numbers Night on Bald Mountain and Ave Maria)

The music was recorded by the Philadelphia Orchestra which was led by famous conductor Leopold Stokowski.  Evidently he and Disney had met in a restaurant and Walt mentioned his idea of the Sorcerers Apprentice.  Leopold told Walt Disney he ‘liked the music’ and would be willing to conduct the piece at no cost.

Then Disney later ran into Stokowski on a train and they shared ideas for the short.  Disney told him later he was ‘all steamed up over the idea of Stokowski working with us’ and that it would ‘lead to a new style of motion picture presentation’.

So work on the Sorcerers Apprentice began in 1937 but by January 1938 the cost had climbed to 125,000 so Disney realized a short could never make that back. A feature film of a series of shorts was discussed.   Roy Disney wanted to keep the budget low because of the ‘experimental and unprecedented nature’ of the production.

However, Walt Disney became energized and “saw this trouble in the form of an opportunity.  This was the birth of a new concept, a group of separate numbers- regardless of their running time- put together in a single presentation”

It’s clear Walt liked the idea of the combined short subject feature film because after Bambi there are 6 such features (a portion of this project I must admit I am not looking forward to but it should be fun)

Each of the shorts in Fantasia involved different techniques.  In Toccata we see an homage to abstract art.  In the Nutcracker Suite professional ballet dancers were brought in, filmed and then sketched.  In the Pastoral Symphony we see almost a watercolor effect.

The music was recorded in 1939 and took 42 days, 33 microphones, and 483,000 feet of film.

Fantasia was also released in Fantasound which was developed by the engineers at Disney and RCA which had 2 projectors rolling- 1 with the sound, another with the film.

Fantasia has one of the most interesting stories at the box office of any Disney film.  Initially Fantasia struggled at the box office because it was rolled out slowly with Fantasound having to be implemented in theaters and the beginning of WWII in 1941

Eventually it was released to the general public with 20 minutes removed and then 45 minutes taken off.  It was then released again in theaters 9 more times, finally making money in 1969 release. In that release 4 scenes from the Pastoral Symphony showing black pegasus waiting on a white one were deemed racially insensitive and removed.

In 1982 a new soundtrack was recorded and in 1990 the live action scenes and original uncut film was released. I saw Fantasia in 1990 and it grossed $25 million.

The Segments

Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach

It’s neat but probably not my favorite as there is no story at all.

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Nutcracker Suite by Tchaikovsky

This is my personal favorite probably because it is the music I am the most familiar with. This shows us all the seasons through the eyes of fairies waking the forest up.

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The Sorcerers Apprentice
This is probably the section that is enjoyed by children the most as we see lazy Mickey take the wizards hat so the brooms will get the water from the well. All bedlam breaks out until the Wizard returns.

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The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky
In this piece we see the galaxy, creation of the world, the planets first creatures, and the life and death of the dinosaurs.

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Yes there is an intermission in a Disney film but you kind of need it to absorb all of the beautiful images and music. We do get one brief segment called Meet the Soundtrack where different notes make visual vibrations.

Pastoral Symphony by Beethoven-
I would never have thought to put Greek mythology with Beethoven but Disney does and it is beautiful. We start with introductions to the centaurs, cupids, fauns, pegasus and other figures.
They are falling in love and having a festival for Bacchus, the God of Wine. However, Zeuss decides to rain on the parade and sends a storm and throws lightning at them.

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I really enjoyed watching the Pastoral Symphony. My favorite image was the depiction of night as a woman with a giant cloak covering the sky. Beautiful.
Dance of the Hours by Amilcare Ponchielli
Next to Sorcerer’s Apprentice this is probably the most famous segment. It is a ballet with characters representing all parts of the day. Ostriches are morning, Hippos are afternoon, Elephants are evening and Alligators are night.
This is the routine that will probably entertain small children the most with the comical hippos and strange looking ostriches dancing.

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Night on Bald Mountain by Modest Mussorgsky and Ave Maria by Franz Schubert
The last segment continues Disney’s early trend of embracing darker themes and messages with bald mountain being the home of Satan. We get the Devil and all his bloody minions.
But then we see a light and it gets wider until we see a tree, a forest and a band of people holding lights. It’s a beautiful contrast.

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Movie Review
It should be clear from all the work I put into this post I think Fantasia is pretty spectacular. And yet, I remember seeing it in 1990 and as a 9 year old I was kind of bored. So, is it an animated movie for adults only?
Maybe but I think there is a strategy which could make this work for kids and adults who perhaps don’t love classical music and art as much as lovers of this film do. I’ve noticed with children enjoyment of any activity comes down to timing. Fantasia is not the movie to play when the kids are driving you nuts and you need 2 hours of free time. It is not the film that will entertain kids.
It is a film that can educate kids (and adults) and should be treated like other educational experiences. Find a time when you can sit down and explain what is going to happen the way you might before going to an art museum or a play. Children under 5 are probably not going to enjoy it even then but older kids should be able to understand the difference between art and entertainment.
The film is split into segments so dividing it up may also be a good way to go. There is no reason why all 2 hours must be seen at once. You could learn about each composer and then watch their segment and I bet everyone would enjoy that.
I look at Fantasia kind of the way I saw Tree of Life. They are both art pieces more than movies. In a world of cookie cutter films how great to see something that transcends entertainment. Something that makes you want to be creative- and Fantasia will inspire you in both your ears and eyes.
I admire Walt Disney so much for making such bold films. Fantasia was such a risk and you rarely see such risks. It can be a little slow at times but I still think it is a masterpiece. I hadn’t seen it in a long time and feel inspired after watching it today. I bet you will too.
Overall Grade A+