August 16, 2017

Some Thoughts on Robot Carnival

I watched Robot Carnival last night. I was excited to see another piece of high-budget rich 80s anime for the first time, in the vein of Akira, Venus Wars and a few other OVAs and films from that late 80s-early 90s era. It's certainly lush, with lots of polished character animation and intricate effects work among the best I've ever seen. In terms of entertainment value, it's a little weaker though.

One trend I noticed in the film was that many of the shorts had very solid drawings and smooth movement, but the action and timing felt weird and somewhat clumsy. Maybe because the animators weren't used to such full animation and detailed designs? It's most noticeable in Franken's Gears and Presence, but a little bit everywhere.

Strange Tales of Meiji Machine Culture was a ton of fun, easily my favourite short. I wish there was more of that to watch. So much fun character animation, and great designs too! This short still had beautiful animation but it was more in the vein of Tatsuyuki Tanaka, Hayao Miyazaki or Yoshinori Kanada (not that either of them worked on this)-- very snappy and dynamic, rather than focusing on the smoothest movement possible like some of the others in the film. After a few serious shorts in a row, this light-hearted comedy was a breath of fresh air and right up my street. I also really liked the anthology's opening and closing segments with the giant Robot Carnival machine.

Chicken Man and Red Neck also had great character animation and effects but not much of a narrative. It was still pretty entertaining, but I don't know if I could really describe the story.

My least favourites were Deprive, which just felt like watching an AMV of a generic 80s action anime; and Presence, which was too creepy for my taste and had unpleasant character designs. Although at least that one did have pretty nice backgrounds.

Let's see, what else was there... I almost forgot that Cloud existed, it was so tedious. It seemed like its goal was to test the viewer's patience, but not in any interesting or subversive way. Just very monotonous. I wanted to fast-forward through it.  Star Light Angel was cute and the Disneyland setting was neat, but generally speaking that short was pretty forgettable.

I was pleased with myself for recognizing Joe Hisaishi's music before seeing his name in the credits. As I'm sure most people are by now, I'm more familiar with his orchestral scores, but I also really like his 80s electronic work in Nausicaa and Venus Wars. It reminded me a bit of Ryuichi Sakamoto's soundtrack for Royal Space Force in its unapologetic synthetic nature.

Overall I thought Robot Carnival was good but when I finished it, I was slightly unsatisfied--as with many anthologies I was left wishing there was just one more really solid segment to elevate the entire thing. Not that there weren't good shorts in it, but it's just sort of a greedy optimism I tend to feel with anthologies. You keep waiting for the piece that really makes it great, and often it doesn't come or as with Meiji Machine Culture, it feels so different from the rest of the film that it doesn't really help to unify it. That said, I wish there were more animated anthologies out there! It's a dream of mine to participate in one someday but I guess they're difficult to organize, and not very lucrative? There's probably not much of an audience for anthologies, in animation or live action, but artistically it's such an appealing format.

August 05, 2017

Sublo and Tangy Mustard #5 - Opposites

When Katy tells them they're too similar, Sublo and Tangy Mustard try to prove how distinct they are from each other.

This is the first cartoon of a new batch/season! I'm hoping to release S&TM more frequently, ideally one a month or so. Right now I'm already halfway through animating the next episode. It'll be longer like the previous ones, but to start things off I wanted to do something really quick and simple. I'd had the premise for this one in my head for a while, but I didn't think it was enough to base a whole episode around. Then after rewatching a bunch of old Jake and Amir sketches I was inspired to do it, but just make it really short like theirs are. In general that series has always been an influence on Sublo and Tangy Mustard-- I like the way it steam-rolls through logic to get to a ridiculous premise before you even realize what's happened, which is what I tried to do with this episode.

July 28, 2017

New Sublo & Tangy Mustard on the way!

I'm working on a big batch of Sublo & Tangy Mustard episodes. Scripts are all done; voices are all recorded except for a couple of side characters; backgrounds and rough animation are underway. The next new episode will only be a minute long, but it should be out within a couple of weeks!

February 09, 2017

Quotes from Absolutely On Music

A couple of weeks ago I finished reading Haruki Murakami's recent non-fiction book Absolutely On Music, which is made up of interviews with the conductor Seiji Ozawa. In reading the book I hoped to find some discussions of art that could also be applied to my own interests. Not necessarily tricks that could be directly translated from conducting an orchestra to animated filmmaking, but just generally inspiring artistic ideas and philosophy. Here are some of the sections I noted:

"Perhaps one reason we never talked seriously about music until recently is that the maestro's work kept him so fully involved. As a result, whenever we got together to have a drink, we'd talk about anything other than music. At most, we might have shared a few fragmentary remarks on some musical topics that never led anywhere. Ozawa is the type of person who focuses all his energy on his work, so that when he steps away from it, he needs to take a breather. Knowing this, I avoided bringing up musical topics when I was in his company."
(from the introduction, vii)

"Whatever differences there might be between making music and writing fiction, both of us are happiest when absorbed in our work. And the very fact that were are able to become so totally engrossed in it gives us the deepest satisfaction. What we end up producing as a result of that work may well be important, but aside from that, our ability to work with utter concentration and to devote ourselves to it so completely that we forget the passage of time is its own irreplaceable reward."
(from the introduction, xi)
I really relate to this. Nothing is as exciting or fun as when I'm really engrossed in making a cartoon, either writing, storyboarding or animating.

"M: In Japan we talk about ma in Asian music - the importance of those pauses or empty spaces - but it's there in Western music, too. You get a musician like Glenn Gould, and he's doing exactly the same thing. Not everybody can do it -- certainly no ordinary musician. But somebody like him does it all the time.
M: Ordinary musicians don't do it?

O: No, never. Or if they do, the spaces don't fit in as naturally as this. It doesn't grab you -- you don't get drawn in as you do here. That's what putting in these empty spaces, or ma, is all about, isn't it? You grab your audience and pull them in. East or West, it's all the same when a virtuoso does it."
This is something very applicable to animation (at its most basic level, a held pose so that the audience can process something), or film storytelling (a pause to provide tension, or the opposite, such as an Ozu 'pillow shot').

"M: He's like an old master of classical rakugo storytelling, just going along with his instincts.
O: Yes, he's completely at ease, not the least bit concerned if his fingers stumble a little. That part where you said he was flirting with danger -- he really was. But that just adds to the overall flavor when you're that good.
M: When I first heard this recording, I was worried that his action or touch or whatever you call it was just a bit slower than it used to be -- but, strangely enough, the more I listened to it, the less it bothered me.
O: That's because a musician's special flavor comes out with age. His playing at that stage may have more interesting qualities than at the height of his career."

This is a much more appealing view of aging as an artist than what you usually hear in western pop culture, which is generally that people lose the vitality and energy of their early work, becoming repetitive or irrelevant.

"O: Look, Beethoven himself changes a lot in the Ninth. His orchestrations were quite limited until he got to his Ninth Symphony."
I just found this an encouraging thought, that one of classical music's most famous composers had a creative breakthrough that late in his work.

"M: The sound is unified, and the quality of the playing is high.
O: Yes, but it could use a little more flavor.
M: I think it's expressive, and it really sings.
O: But it's missing a certain heaviness - a feeling from the countryside.
M: You mean it's too clean and neat?
O: The Boston Symphony may have a tendency to make sounds that are too nice."
"M: Listening to their sound, I can see exactly what you mean. This is very good-quality, high-level teamwork.
O: No one does anything to depart from the orchestra's overall sound. But that's not necessarily the right way to play Mahler. Getting the proper balance between the two is extremely hard."

I feel this way about nearly all modern commercial animation. Everything has a tendency to be too clean, too stiff, too restrained and neat for fear of creating a moment of genuine surprise or showing the audience the dreaded 'artist's hand.' But I think getting to see some of the individual artist seeping into the work is one of the most exciting things about animation. That's why my favorites tend to be the ones whose personal stamp is strong - Rod Scribner, Jim Tyer, Yuzo Aoki, Masaaki Yuasa, Shinya Ohira, etc.

[Ozawa talking about seeing Louie Armstrong live in the 60s]
"O: That special style of Satchmo's was indescribable. You know how we talk about artistic shibumi in Japan, when a mature artist attains a level of austere simplicity and mastery? Satchmo was like that. He was already getting along in years, but his singing and trumpet playing were at their peak."
Again, this is a nicer view of aging than the typical line of thinking in rock music, which is that everybody made their best stuff when they were in their early 20s and it's all downhill from there.

I found a lot of inspiration in the book, and I recommend checking it out if you like these quoted passages.