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Maybe VR Isn’t The Future of Cinema – Just a Gimmick?

Friday, May 5th, 2017

Many Best Buy VR pop-up stores closed in February; now Facebook is shutting down its Oculus Story Studio.

As Janko Roettgers reported in Variety, “Oculus Story Studio, the award-winning studio behind virtual reality (VR) short films like Dear Angelica and Henry is being shut down, Facebook announced Thursday afternoon. The studio’s 50 staffers are encouraged to apply for new jobs within Oculus, but all ongoing projects of the studio are being cancelled.

‘We’ve been looking at the best way to allocate our resources to create an impact on the ecosystem,’ said Oculus VP of Content Jason Rubin in a blog post. ‘After careful consideration, we’ve decided to shift our focus away from internal content creation to support more external production. As part of that shift, we’ll be winding down Story Studio.’

Oculus officially unveiled Story Studio to the world in early 2015, when it also premiered Lost as the studio’s first narrative piece. In 2016, Story Studio followed up with Henry, an animated VR short about a lovable hedgehog that won an Emmy for Outstanding Original Interactive Program later that year. And earlier this year, Oculus Story Studio premiered its most ambitious project with Dear Angelica, a VR film that was animated entirely within VR itself and that featured Geena Davis voicing one of the two main characters.

All three films will continue to be available on the Oculus Store, Rubin said Thursday. For Dear Angelica, the Story Studio team also developed an entire authoring tool called Quill that allows animators to draw 3-D scenes while wearing a headset and that has been available for free on the Oculus Store. Quill could be open sourced, according to a spokesperson, but Oculus is not going to provide any active support for it anymore.

That could be bad news for animators looking to explore new forms of storytelling in VR; the Story Studio team had in recent months been looking to venture into 3-D comics, and debuted a collection of VR comics at the Tribeca Film Festival last month. At the time, it announced that these comics would be released on the Oculus Store later this year, but that seems less certain now.”

This comes on the heels of an announcement in February 2017 that roughly 200 “pop up” Oculus demo booths located in Best Buy stores in the United States were being shuttered due to lack of consumer interest. As Michael Rougeau reported in Digital Trends, “just under half of the Oculus Rift demo kiosks in Best Buy stores across the U.S. are being shut down, according to a report from Business Insider. The reason? It could be a lack of interest from shoppers.

Apparently, it wasn’t uncommon for Best Buy employees ‘to go days without giving a single demonstration,’ the website said. A memo between a third-party company and store employees reportedly confirmed that the move is due to poor ‘store performance.’ An Oculus spokesperson later confirmed with the website that the Best Buy Rift pop-ups are closing, but said the shift is due to ‘seasonal changes’ and that Oculus is ‘prioritizing demos … in larger markets.’

The move will reportedly affect 200 of the 500 Best Buy locations in the U.S. that currently have Oculus Rift demo stations. ‘We still believe the best way to learn about VR is through a live demo,’ the spokesperson, Andrea Schubert, said. ‘We’re going to find opportunities to do regular events and pop-ups in retail locations and local communities throughout the year.’ She mentioned that stores in Canada will still have the demo kiosks as well.

Business Insider’s report cited multiple unnamed sources who said that the demo stations were often too buggy to use and demos were infrequent even during the holidays. Another of the site’s sources said that Facebook, which owns Oculus, has considered opening dedicated storefronts to sell the headset, but that those talks are still in the early stage.” Summing up the move, Rougeau noted that “the removal of Oculus Rift kiosks from Best Buy stores may be a signal of the product’s declining status.”

It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the coming months.

Wally Wood’s 22 Frames That Always Work

Monday, April 3rd, 2017

Click here, or on the image above, to see 22 great ways to design and set up a shot for maximum impact.

Wally Wood was one of the most talented comic artists of all time – and he left behind this invaluable guide to designing shots for maximum impact with speed and efficiency. Anne Lukeman and some of her friends put together this brief tutorial on the 22 shots, how they’re designed, and what they accomplish.

As Wikipedia notes, “Wood struggled to be as efficient as possible in the often low-paying comics industry. Over time he created a series of layout techniques sketched on pieces of paper which he taped up near his drawing table. These ‘visual notes,’ collected on three pages, reminded Wood (and select assistants he showed the pages to) of various layouts and compositional techniques to keep his pages dynamic and interesting . . .

Around 1981, Wood’s ex-assistant Larry Hama, by then an editor at Marvel Comics, pasted up photocopies of Wood’s drawings on a single page, which Hama titled ‘Wally Wood’s 22 Panels That Always Work!!’ (It was subtitled, ‘Or some interesting ways to get some variety into those boring panels where some dumb writer has a bunch of lame characters sitting around and talking for page after page!’)

Hama left out 2 of the original 24 panels as his photocopies were too faint to make out some of the lightest sketches. Hama distributed Wood’s ‘elegantly simple primer to basic storytelling’ to artists in the Marvel bullpen, who in turn passed them on to their friends and associates. Eventually, ’22 Panels’ made the rounds of just about every cartoonist or aspiring comic book artist in the industry and achieved its own iconic status.”

While these shots are designed for comic books and graphic novels, they have a nice film noir feel, and can easily be seen as setups used in numerous comic book films today. Wood’s no-nonsense design template has been handily transferred to live action by Lukeman, with live action figures demonstrating the usefulness of the various designs. As has been pointed out, the acting here is minimal, but as a tutorial, this is an extremely useful tool for both filmmakers and artists.

And yes, these 22 panels always do work – a tribute to Wood’s genius as an artist.

New Book Series: “Quick Takes: Movies and Popular Culture”

Tuesday, February 21st, 2017

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster and Wheeler Winston Dixon announce their new book series.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster and Wheeler Winston Dixon are proud to announce the publication of the first two volumes in their new book series Quick Takes: Movies and Popular Culture from Rutgers University Press – Disney Culture by John Wills, and Zombie Cinema by Ian Olney.

Disney Culture explores the Walt Disney Company, which has grown into a diversified global media giant. But is it still possible to identify a coherent Disney ethos? Examining everything from theme parks to merchandising to animation to live-action films, Disney Culture proposes that they all follow a core corporate philosophy dating back to the 1920s.

Zombie Cinema notes that the living dead have been lurking in popular culture since the 1930s, but they are now ubiquitous. Presenting a historical overview of zombies in film and on television, Zombie Cinema also explores this globalized phenomenon, examining why the dead have captured the imagination of twenty-first-century audiences worldwide.

Early reviews are excellent: Blair Davis, author of Movie Comics: Page to Screen/Screen to Page writes that in Disney Culture, “Wills makes a strong contribution to both the fields of media studies as well as Disney scholarship with this concise, well written and thoroughly engaging overview of how the cultural, artistic, and economic factors surrounding the Disney corporation intersect.”

Janet Wasko, author of Understanding Disney: The Manufacture of Fantasy adds that “Disney Culture is a notable addition to the growing critical work on Disney and its cultural significance. Wills skillfully dissects the Disney ethos and even challenges the multimedia giant to ‘mean something beyond merchandise’ in the twenty-first century.”

Of Zombie Cinema, Stephen Prince, author of Digital Visual Effects in Cinema: The Seduction of Reality writes,”Zombie Cinema is a brisk, informative read that gives us a zesty tour through an amazingly prolific and popular contemporary film cycle. He’s clearly done his homework in excavating – or disinterring, as the case may be – zombie movies from disparate cultural and historical contexts.”

Rick Worland, author of The Horror Film: An Introduction notes that “what the vampire was to the 1980s and 90s, the zombie has become for early twenty-first century audiences, the monster of choice, spreading through a multitude of media texts. [In Zombie Cinema] Ian Olney organizes the history of the zombie in popular culture from Haitian voodoo practice to the present, providing clear analysis of its evolution and development. Theoretically informed, the writing is engaging and accessible throughout.”

New African Cinema by Valérie K. Orlando, and Digital Music Videos by Steven Shaviro are forthcoming soon.

Click here for more information on the new series.

Drew Taylor in Vulture: The Disney Vault is Real!

Saturday, February 4th, 2017

Long shrouded in mystery, the “The Disney Vault” is very, very real.

As Drew Taylor writes in Vulture, “in an anonymous block of Glendale, California, sits a nondescript beige building free of signage or distinction. The only thing that would even alert you to the fact that this is the Disney equivalent of Fort Knox is the abundance of insane security procedures stationed around the building.

Even for employees of the company, the building remains elusive and hard to gain entry to. (Full disclosure: I worked for the company for almost two years and never once got to go.) Unlike the main studio archives down the street, which are housed in an inviting glass building with ample signage — it’s this location that appears on-camera whenever the company makes documentaries about the Disney Vault — this place feels like a mirage . . .

Just in terms of size, the vault is insane — there are 12 vaults, each organized by project. This includes everything from the original sketches for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to larger-scale items like all of the puppets from The Nightmare Before Christmas and Frankenweenie.

Each room is climate controlled and meticulously catalogued, with state-of-the-art security and fire-suppression systems in place. By the library’s own estimates, there are something like 65 million pieces of art in the collection, which makes it the largest collection of animation artwork in the entire world.

The vaults look like what you’d think something like this might — the rows of stuff are located in cabinets which can be moved with a big spinning handle (like a vault), so you can easily get to them. As for the artwork, it’s filed in a way that it should be, with cells or production artwork stacked horizontally, while other, less sensitive items are filed vertically, in accordion-style folders.

Oversize items like large background paintings are housed in separate flat files. The sensation of walking into one of the vaults is like stumbling into the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark . . .

I was there as part of a small group of journalists who had been brought to the building ostensibly to celebrate Pinocchio leaving the Disney Vault with a digital rerelease. While there, I got to chat with Fox Carney, the manager at the Animation Research Library, and he told me that the archives contained ‘over a million’ pieces of artwork for Pinocchio alone.” And that’s just for starters . . .

Fascinating stuff, and you can read the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above.

Skip Black Friday – Buy Nothing, Make A Film!

Thursday, November 24th, 2016

Burned out on Black Friday? Then buy nothing, and make a film instead!

The Echo Park Film Center in Los Angeles, California has an excellent suggestion for those sick of consumer culture, and Black Friday in particular. As their website notes, “Does the consumerism of Black Friday bum you out? Celebrate Buy Nothing Day instead! Swing by the Echo Park Film Center for this free, direct animation drop-in workshop and create your own handmade, one-of-a-kind piece of cinematic art.

Our staff will show you the basics of frame-by-frame animated filmmaking by cutting, pasting, and drawing directly onto 16mm film stock. This is a casual open house-style workshop, so feel free to come and go at your leisure, bring some Thanksgiving leftovers to share, and escape the shopping crowds. All ages and skill levels welcome! Facilitator: Gina Napolitan.”

This is the sort of free-spirited artistic enterprise we need more of today – community filmmaking, and coming together as a group to create art work for all ages, and all skill sets. The Echo Park Film Center “is a non-profit media arts organization committed to providing equal and affordable community access to film/video resources via five channels:

• a neighborhood microcinema space
• free and nominal cost education programs
• a comprehensive film equipment and service retail department
• an eco-friendly mobile cinema & film school
• local and international artist residencies

We feel it is imperative that more members of marginalized communities become active participants in the creation and dissemination of experimental and documentary film in order to truly share the many powerful voices and visions that make up the fabric of contemporary life. With a special focus on ‘at risk’ youth, EPFC programs and services use cinema as catalyst to inspire, educate, and empower communities.”

This is the work we should all be doing today; now, more than ever.

Ration Books and Rabbit Pies: Films from the Home Front

Saturday, December 19th, 2015

Here’s a fascinating collection of British wartime short films – another treat from the British Film Institute.

As CineOutsider reports, “continuing the BFI’s work of unlocking film heritage in Britain, this fascinating DVD collection brings together a selection of public information films, propaganda shorts and adverts from the Second World War, drawn from the BFI National Archive, and contains films that give essential advice to a nation living in an age of austerity.

Originally shown in cinemas to British audiences during the Second World War, these films served to boost morale, covering topics which include rationing, staying healthy, how to grow vegetables, cooking tips and salvaging and recycling. These films were crucial to the British war effort and the campaign messaging has been much reproduced in modern advertising to this day.

Highlights of the collection include Tea Making Tips (1941), with ‘the six golden tips’ for making the perfect cuppa; director/artist/animator Len Lye’s When the Pie Was Opened (1941); Did You Ever See a Dream Talking (1943) starring comedian Claude Hulbert playing a Home Guard volunteer; Wisdom of the Wild (1940), a wartime twist on the long-running Secrets of Life natural history series; the Wicked Witch (1943), an advert for Rinso and A-Tish-oo! (1941), an instructional film on how to make a face-mask.”

There’s also a collection of Food Flash mini-shorts, each about 15 seconds long, which cover everything from ‘victory meals’ to the necessity of reporting rat infestations to the local council to prevent them from raiding food supplies. All the films are very brief, and together they give a fascinating look at a time and place long vanished from authentic recall for most people.

There’s nothing like living history – which this DVD supplies – to bring the past back to life before our eyes. I was lucky enough to get an advance copy from the BFI, and it’s a pip! You won’t see these films anywhere else – pick up a copy, and support the BFI, and international film history.

A fascinating collection – absolutely worthwhile, and beautifully restored.

Lost Walt Disney / Ub Iwerks Cartoon Found

Thursday, November 26th, 2015

A print of the silent cartoon Sleigh Bells – long thought lost – has been found at the BFI Archive in London.

As The British Film Institute notes on their website, “The BFI National Archive and Walt Disney Animation Studios are pleased to announce the rediscovery of a rare, long-lost, Walt Disney animated film, Sleigh Bells (1928) featuring the first ever Disney character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, a long-eared precursor to Mickey Mouse.

Oswald the Lucky Rabbit was invented by Walt Disney in 1927 and was loved for his mischievous and rebellious personality. A number of other films do survive but Sleigh Bells has been, until now, a lost film, unseen since its original release. The animation in the film was accomplished by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks, both of whom went on to create the character of Mickey Mouse, following a contractual disagreement with Universal Pictures, for whom they had created the Oswald films.

The print of Sleigh Bells (1928) was preserved in the collections of the BFI National Archive. The exciting rediscovery was made by a researcher browsing the online catalogue of the BFI National Archive’s holdings. Walt Disney Animation Studios have taken this unique surviving film print and created both a new preservation print and digital copies. The film has a running time of approximately six minutes.”

It’s not surprising to me that the film turned up in the BFI Archives; they’ve been way ahead of the United States since the 1940s in cataloguing and preserving classic films from all over the world, when the Hollywood studios themselves did little to preserve the treasures of the past. But now you can see this bit of history for yourself, thanks to an archive that really cares about the history of the cinema. Hats off the to the BFI!

Click here, or on the image above, to see a clip from Sleigh Bells.

Dreams of Jules Verne: Karel Zeman’s Invention of Destruction

Saturday, June 13th, 2015

I have a new article in Senses of Cinema #75 on Karel Zeman’s classic film Invention of Destruction.

As I write, in part, “Like so many others in the United States, I was first exposed to Karel Zeman’s exotic adventure film Vynález zkázy (Invention of Destruction, 1958), when it was released in the West in a dubbed and retitled as The Fabulous World of Jules Verne in 1961. Zeman was one of the greatest of all Czech animators and special effects artists, and used a process unique in Vynález zkázycombining 19th century pictorial steel engravings with live action photography. This created a fantastic vision of what can be identified today as a steampunk past, where elaborate mechanical devices, hot air balloons, oddly constructed airplanes, submarines, and other infernal machines were brought to life in a manner at once poetic and yet deeply sinister.

Jules Verne (1928-1905) was in many ways one of the most forward thinking of all imaginative popular writers, and his works were both commercially and critically successful. Films such as De la Terre à la Lune (From the Earth to The Moon, 1865, famously made into an early film by Georges Méliès in 1902), Vingt Mille Lieues sous les mers (Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea, 1869-1870), Le Tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours (Around the World in Eighty Days, 1872), and L’Île mystérieuse (Mysterious Island, 1874-75) consolidated his reputation as a prolific and prophetic futurist. Verne’s works have been filmed countless times, either as straight adaptations or updated versions, but Zeman’s film stands alone as perhaps the most faithful of all filmic versions of Verne on the screen. It embraces not only his then-fanciful (and now all too real) vision of the future, but also remains faithful to the iconic images of Verne’s own era.”

You can read the entire essay by clicking here, or on the image above.

Let’s All Go To The Lobby!

Saturday, June 6th, 2015

This hypnotic intermission promo was ubiquitous in 1950s and 60s American cinemas.

In the 1950s and 60s, you simply couldn’t go the movies without seeing this classic short animation. It usually evoked the desired effect;the house lights would come up, and patrons would stream up aisle seeking candy, coffee, ice cream and soft drinks – not to mention popcorn – before the second feature started. As Wikipedia notes, “Let’s All Go to the Lobby is a 1953 animated musical [short, produced by the Filmack Corporation] played as an advertisement before the beginning of the main film. It featured a family of four talking concession stand products, singing ‘Let’s all go to the lobby to get ourselves a treat’ and walking to the concession stand.

The Chicago-based Filmack Studios, originally known as Filmack Trailer Company, was founded in 1919 by Irving Mack. The founder was a former journalist. The company specialized in the production of newsreels and promotional material for theaters. By the 1950s, the sales of the concession stands represented a significant portion of movie theaters’ revenue. Filmack commissioned a series of Technicolor trailers aimed at informing audiences about a theater’s newly installed concession stand. Let’s All Go to the Lobby was one of these films.

Four anthropomorphic, animated food items (from left to right: chewing gum, popcorn, candy, and a soda) are depicted walking leftwards. In the foreground before these characters are silhouettes of audience members, creating an illusion of depth. Later, a group of four consumers are depicted enjoying their purchased food items. In 2000, Let’s All Go to the Lobby was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.'” So  . . .

Let’s all go to the lobby;
Let’s all go to the lobby;
Let’s all go to the lobby
To get ourselves a treat!

Delicious things to eat;
The popcorn can’t be beat.
The sparkling drinks are just dandy;
The chocolate bars and nut candy.
So let’s all go to the lobby
To get ourselves a treat.
Let’s all go to the lobby
To get ourselves a treat!

Click here, or on the image above, to see this classic theater advertisement.

Treasure Trove of Silent American Movies Found in Amsterdam

Sunday, March 30th, 2014

A group of extremely rare American silent films has been found at the EYE Museum in Amsterdam.

As Susan King reports in The Los Angeles Times, “Long-missing comedy shorts such as 1927’s Mickey’s Circus, featuring a 6-year-old Mickey Rooney in his first starring role, 1917’s Neptune’s Naughty Daughter; 1925’s Fifty Million Years Ago, an animated introduction to the theory of evolution; and a 1924 industrial short, The Last Word in Chickens, are among the American silent films recently found at the EYE Filmmusem in Amsterdam. EYE and the San Francisco-based National Film Preservation Foundation have partnered to repatriate and preserve these films — the majority either don’t exist in the U.S. or only in inferior prints.

The announcement was to be made Sunday in Amsterdam at EYE Museum with a public screening of the first film saved from the project Koko’s Queen [see image above], a 1926  Out of the Inkwell cartoon, which had been available in the U.S. only in substandard video copies. Annette Melville, director of the National Film Preservation Foundation, said EYE came to them after learning of NFPF’s partnership four years ago with the New Zealand Film Archive, which repatriated nitrate prints of nearly 200 silent U.S. films, including a missing 1927 John Ford comedy, Upstream. The following year, the NFPF and the New Zealand archive also identified the 30-minute portion of the 1923 British film The White Shadow, which is considered to be the earliest feature film in which Alfred Hitchcock had a credit.

‘We had so much on our plate,’ said Melville. ‘We took responsibility for funding the preservation of a good number of the 176 films. We didn’t want to bite off more than we could chew. There are a lot of resources involved in bringing the films back and preserving them. Most of this work is funded through grants.’ With support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the NFPF last year sent researcher Leslie Lewis to Amsterdam, where she spent two months examining more than 200,000 feet of highly combustible 35mm nitrate film. A veritable Sherlock Holmes of celluloid, Lewis also was one of two nitrate experts dispatched to identify the films in the New Zealand Archive.”

You can read the entire story by clicking here, or on the image above.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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