Disney’s “Chicken Little” (1943)

In 1943, Walt Disney released a short called “Chicken Little,” using the traditional story of the little chicken who gets bumped on the head and starts running around causing a panic, convinced that the sky is falling. But in this WWII-era short, the fox is reading a book titled “Psychology” (although it was really “Mein Kampf,” they opted to not be entirely transparent on that count), and at the end, he gets Chicken Little to lead all the chickens into his cave, where he eats them and plants their wishbones in a way that makes them resemble gravestones.

Chicken Little: Foxy Loxy and the cave entrace

Foxy Loxy finishing off a wishbone

Foxy Loxy planting a wishbone in what looks like a cemetery of wishbones

Foxy Loxy getting in his last digs at the narrator, who is audibly upset that this wasn’t the ending in HIS book.

I showed this film to some students a couple months ago, and they were suitably horrified by the ending. When I was talking with one of the students yesterday about the end of my film and all the shorts I wrote about in my previous post, she reminded me about that one, so I went back and watched it again. There’s a tension in the storytelling, between the narrator and the character of the fox – especially at the end, after the fox has eaten all the chickens, when the fox has clearly “won.” I am going to look at more WWII-era propaganda cartoons because these clearly are trying to emphasize the mortal stakes that were at hand. I found this one a little too heavy-handed, but it is another clear example of a cartoon with a fatal ending that I want to try to learn something from as I work on the ending of my film.

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Breaking the Fourth Wall

After an evening of watching Tex Avery cartoons – both his Warner Brothers and MGM work – and two documentaries about him (Portrait of Tex Avery from Turner in 1988 and the other in French, Tex Avery : un univers en folie, from 2003), I feel like I’m getting some ideas of how to loosen up my drawings some, but I’ll have to see how that plays out in the coming days in my sketchbook.

I did have one thought on how to work with the ending of the film – when Elizabeth How is hanged.  I’ve been stumped because it’s like, “GREAT! I’ve just gotten them to laugh at lighting the mare’s farts on fire, and now someone is getting killed!”  I came across a cartoon by Avery with a lethal ending, Lonesome Lenny (1946), in which the character Lenny has managed at the very end of the cartoon to kill Screwball Squirrel, who still manages to hold up a sign that says, “SAD ENDING, ISN’T IT?” just before the iris closes on the film:

The end of Tex Avery’s Lonesome Lenny,  after Lenny has killed Screwball Squirrel

I’ve poked around and looked for other examples of this, and remembered another one in Avery’s Jerky Turkey (1945), when the turkey and the Pilgrim who has been hunting him through the whole picture have finally given up their battle and taken the advice of the bear who has walked through several scenes wearing a sandwich board that reads, “Eat at Joe’s” – they decide to go eat at Joe’s – except that it turns out that “Joe” is the bear, and he eats them.  The Pilgrim holds up a sign from inside the bear’s belly, saying, “DON’T EAT AT JOE’S”:

The end of Tex Avery’s “Jerky Turkey,” after the two characters have been eaten, commenting from inside the bear’s belly.

Then there’s the end of Chuck Jones’ Gee Whiz-z-z-z (1955) where Wile E. Coyote holds up a sign, asking “HOW ABOUT ENDING THIS CARTOON BEFORE I HIT?” and then another as the iris closes, saying “THANK YOU”:

The ending of Chuck Jones’ Gee Whiz-z-z-z

As the iris closes on Gee Whiz-z-z-z

And in the (sign-less) ending of the the classic What’s Opera, Doc? (1955), when Elmer has finally killed the wabbit, a dead Bugs Bunny pops up his head momentarily before the iris closes, to ask the audience, “Well, what did you expect in a opera, a happy ending?”:

The ending of Chuck Jones’ What’s Opera, Doc? when Bugs lifts his head up momentarily to talk to the audience about the ending, before he drops his head again and the iris closes.

This is giving me some possible ideas for how to deal with the unfortunate but necessary demise of Elizabeth How in my film. She has to die, but maybe if I steal a technique like this, I can make it a little easier to bring the audience along.

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More sketching of the Deacon

To do my pencil test of the Deacon (Isaac Sr.) contemplating what to do, I really need to work more on what kind of expressive acting range I can give him, and what I want to communicate about his inner workings in those expressions in the situations he’s in, so I’ve started just trying to sketch him in all sorts of ways. It’s becoming increasingly easy to draw him recognizably – imagine that! – but it still feels like I’m just scratching the surface on getting him to be expressive.

Isaac Sr.: various expressions

Isaac Sr.: various angles

As I work on getting to know how to draw him better, I need to see how much I can push the drawings yet retain his recognizability. Most of the emoting currently seems to be coming in the eyes, eyebrows and mouth (I’ve been kickstarting myself with Nina Paley’s Face-O-Matic to start getting more expressive). I am having trouble, though, dealing with the jaw and it’s effect on the shape of his face/head. I should push it further than feels comfortable/recognizable and see how that goes, but I’m not there yet. I have been playing it pretty safe in these drawings, working on mastering the character and keeping it consistent, but I’m concerned that it will result in the character being too static and just not funny enough.

I’ve also got some started for Tom, the Deacons’ brother-in-law:

I’m going to watch some Tex Avery tonight, since he does so much to push his characters into all kinds of shapes – to kick my butt some to take some chances!

Tex Avery: Wolf from Dangerous Dan McFoo

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Giving dimension to my characters

I worked for a while this evening on Isaac Sr., trying to take the drawing of him from the very two dimension comic face looking straight on, to be able to move him around in space to seem three-dimensional while still retaining the cartoony look of the character. It sure helped to have the maquette I made a while back!

Isaac Sr. straight on

Isaac Sr. looking 3D

Now the task at hand is to figure out a sequence of key poses and expressions for his face that tell the story of him going from reticence and apprehension to resignation and acquiescence on the “cure.”  I have a nice sequence in my storyboard, but the key thing will be not to run it too quickly!

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Outline of Script

I’ve been trying to look at my script in different ways, and looked carefully at John K.’s Ren & Stimpy outline script for “Stimpy’s Invention”, and thinking about this letter I found by him, critical of Jay Ward’s overly scripted stuff:

http://www.lettersofnote.com/2011/01/script-written-cartoons-are-like-rap.html

I have the film basically blocked out below, which is allowing me to switch stuff around easily to see how it feels, and the chunks are not “scripted” so much as referencing stuff in my head, and I can add in details as I think of them.

May 3, 2012

Outline: Blue Blazes

BLUE BLAZES

1. OPENING

Open on Elizabeth How, as a nice colonial woman. Voiceover reads some of the stuff from Cotton Mather’s version fo the case.

2.  ARREST

1) JOHN HOW refusing to take her to Court
2) JOHN HOW ‘s sow jumped up in the air and died

3. ACCUSATIONS IN COURT

1) HANNAH PERLEY’s fits
2) Cow choking on a turnip
3) Broken fence rails
4) “poison” apple

4. ELIZABETH HOW’S LAUGHTER

1) Gossiping between ELIZABETH and another woman / laughter
2) Mary Cummings puts two and two together.

5. DENYING JAMES HOW JR.

1) JAMES HOW JR. asks to borrow a horse
2) ISAAC JR. dicks him around on the horse/mare question, then refuses him

6. CURING THE HORSE

1) Horse is obviously sick
2) Disagreement between ISAAC SR. and TOM about pipe cure
3) Applying the lit pipe to the fundament
4) Blue blazes!!!
5) Putting out the fire

7. VERDICT & SENTENCE

1) Jury finds ELIZABETH HOW guilty
2) Judge passes sentence

 8.  THE END

1) Elizabeth How  hangs. Voiceover reads some of the critical stuff from Calef.

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First Pencil Test

On my quest to sidestep my writer’s block on how to iron out the story, I have managed to get my first actual pencil test done tonight – just nine drawings of Isaac Sr. turning the pipe around in his hand to insert it (at 1:29 in on Take 7) – but it feels like a bit of a break-through for me, and that more will be coming in rapid order.  I’m really looking forward to doing the pencil tests for Isaac Sr.’s face as he contemplates what he is about to do – starting at 0:50 in Take 7 – and the part where the flames spread out of the pipe and across the mare’s butt, so those are likely to be the next two pencil tests.

9-frame pencil test guide, showing the arc used for turning the pipe around

Because I am not happy with the rhythm of the whole at all yet, I am trying not to let that derail me and delay me any longer. I know that I will be working on this through the summer, with the rhythms I’m starting to build up in this production class starting to sink in.  Of course, I say that even though last week was pretty much of a wash, between feeling so blocked up and being sick, but I’m feeling the push to be back in the swing of the work, and I’m hoping this can help me build momentum for the summer, when I will not be trying to balance my energy between my day job and the film, and can devote so much more time daily to the film.

I do know that the fart-lighting section feels pretty much laid out, so I’m just going to spend my time now working through the pencil tests on that and let the rest percolate. I haven’t gotten anywhere nearly as far as I want to get, but this latest (Take #7) doesn’t reflect much of the work I’ve been doing behind the scenes, learning to work with the new software (Toon Boom Studio 6) and figuring out how to work with the fieldchart on the light table and then on the copy stand. I still don’t feel like I’ve got a very efficient system in place, but I’m starting to make some decisions on how I want to nail down everything (well, dare I say “duct-tape down” everything?) when the time comes to start shooting whole scenes made up of hundreds of drawings, not just these brief pencil tests.

One little discovery this past week is that the copy machine at work will copy onto transparencies, and I have a box of them. Granted, without being punched, this doesn’t help a WHOLE lot, but by using an Exacto knife, I was able to add Acme “punches” to one that I’d copied from my 16×9 field chart, so that I can just keep it on my light table under my drawings, so I can better keep track of the framing of my shots, while not have an extra layer of paper for the light to be going through while I’m working.

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Working through my writer’s block

I’ve been having a really tough time with trying to get the flow of the film going right, to the point where I’m feeling totally stopped up.  Not good.  So I’ve decided that since the main scene in the film is basically all laid out – even if the surrounding story is not firmed up yet – I will start working on animating the pipe scene. I’m doing this mostly to try to get myself loosened up, and to start seeing some of the film for real in front of my eyes so that maybe I can get the harder parts to become clearer in my head.  I have to animate to be able to see what I want to animate.  Something like that. I can’t just keep running around in circles with my animatics that look so dull.  So I’m starting with the easiest (?) scene I can think of, and that’s the one with the pipe in the hand, being swiveled around to  poke into the “fundament” of the sick mare.  The visual challenges of the foreshortening of the pipe stem, the arc of the turn, etc. are all tangible challenges that my brain can handle, and maybe while I’m doing THAT, other parts of my brain can start figuring of the framing of these events within the rest of the film.

And since I’m starting to do actual drawings for the film, I have had to make a decision about field size. I’ve opted for 16×9, so I can go HD right from the start. This did require looking up info about field charts, and I found some free templates here:

http://www.animationmeat.com/templates/templates.html

They are sized primarily for 12f paper but I’m working on 10f paper, so I had to make my own, marking off the field centering it at 4.25″ above the center peg, and measuring  the widest frame at 24cm x 13.5cm. We’ll see how it goes…

Having technical issues to tackle feels easier to tackle now than the story-writing issues – something that I think just needs to percolate more, and I ned to do something to fill in that time so that the film does just sit on a back burner.

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My animation paper arrives!

I am finally back at my job after four days of being sick, and I’m behind where I want to be on the film, but chest colds just knock all the energy out of me.

Two cartons with my animation paper were delivered by UPS today and were waiting for me on the doorstep when I got home. I’ve transfered them into storage boxes. This is good for about five and a half minutes worth of animation at 15 fps.

10+ reams of 10f Acme-punched animation paper

I am still trying to make the story work. One thing that struck me today is that even though this is a funny movie, it is still at its heart a statement against capital punishment, and if I lose track of that part, it’s not the film I want it to be. I hope this means that I’m zeroing in on getting the film written, so that I can start using my new supply of paper and actually do some animating!

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The Three Stooges and my film

I’m not sure anyone would put the Three Stooges and the Salem witchcraft trials in the same category, but I’ve basically cast the guys who light the horse’s farts on fire as Stooges.  In an interview on NPR today with the guys who have just released a new Stooges movie, one thing they said they learned about violent humor came from a scene in their movie Dumb and Dumberer, when an actress was hit in the face with a snowball. They originally showed a little bit of a blood coming from her nose, which it turned out to totally disconcert the audience and they stopped laughing. So they took out the blood, and all was well: the snowball to the face remained funny.  They said that the key to such outrageous violent humor is that no one ever REALLY gets hurt. The thing about my film is that after  this really stupid thing – lighting a horse’s farts on fire – which makes people laugh, the follow-through is that the worst thing possible happens: someone else is blamed and it’s taken seriously enough that she  gets wrongly convicted and put to death. I think the hardest thing for me right now with the movie is how to carry that off without totally tanking the humor.

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Software options

As I’ve been working on my animatics, I’ve been using the software Frames 4 from Tech4Learning, the first animation software I encountered about 5 years ago, and which inspired me on this path.  Frames 5 has just been released, and I’ve been looking at it to see what kinds of changes they’ve made, as I try to decide what software I will use to make the actual movie. The contenders are as follows:

Frames 5 from Tech4Learning

DragonFrame

Adobe AfterEffects

ToonBoom Studio 6

 $40  $295 Part of the $900 Master Suite… $329, on sale for $150

Obviously Frames has the best price, it’s easy to use, and I’ve liked it well enough, but I’ve been feeling all along like I wanted more, and I am not sure that the new version will have enough “more” to keep me using it. It started out as stop-motion software, but has added some nice features, but I don’t think it is robust enough for my growing needs. It is marketed to schools, and I have bought it for mine and have taught workshops with it frequently, but I don’t think I will stick with it for my personal animation use.

Contour Design Shuttle Pro V2

I haven’t used DragonFrame personally. It is stop-motion software that was used by the TA in my last animation class as RISD|CE, and so I threw it into consideration. It’s nice that it comes with a controller, and connects directly to the camera to capture the images, but I have so many devices already (including a Contour Design Shuttle Pro V2) this probably wasn’t going to be a critical feature for me. It looks like many of the features of this software are to control the camera – setting the exposure, depth-of-field, multiple exposures, etc – which is great for stop-motion, but of limited use for me doing traditional hand-drawn animation.

Adobe AfterEffects is obviously a powerhouse option. I have an older version of it, but I want to stay current, and after trying a few routes to get pricing, I discovered that it is a pain to acquire separately from any of the Creative Suites. The current version of Photoshop also has animation capabilities, but I have limited patience with Adobe in general as a company. For starters, they are expensive, and although there is educational pricing, even that ain’t cheap. I feel like every time I turn around, there is a new version, and all too often, they screw up perfectly good features and interfaces. I have been using Photoshop and Acrobat for more than 15 years, and have picked up InDesign in the past couple of years, but I have also watched what Adobe did to Dreamweaver and Flash since buying out Macromedia, and I haven’t liked it. I also had bad experiences with the way they managed their font sales and copy protection. Even though Adobe does so much industry-standard stuff, I am wary.

Which brought me to ToonBoom Studio 6. This company just does animation software, and Studio is on the high end of their consumer software line. They have a professional line above this.  ToonBoom regularly sends me emails with deep sale prices of their software, and this one came through this week: $150, down from the regular price of $330. I downloaded the trial version, and felt very quickly that it was likely going to address the kinds of things I want to do. It can control a TWAIN scanner, and it has direct preview via a connected camera, although I have not been able to determine if my Nikon D40x will work directly with it. In addition to importing image files (which is what I would do with the photos from my Nikon on the copy stand), it can vectorize them, and then it has easy vector animation tools, including bone-animation and rotoscoping. You can change the camera to zoom and pan. It utilizes layers – which I tested out with the 30-day demo version I downloaded, because I want the ability to composite in the backgrounds and to color my drawings in the computer – and you can even space them out as in 3D to behave like a multiplane camera.  It can export in HD. Although I expect I would have to spend some time with the tutorial videos, the interface felt pretty intuitive from the start – so I bought a copy of ToonBoom Studio, and will try working with that next as I move from doing the animatics of the whole story toward the actual animation.

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