Last weekend, I attended a performance of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers in concert in NYC. It was hosted at the Lincoln Center, where I’ve seen the New York Philharmonic Orchestra perform. This event featured the 21st Century Symphony Orchestra, who have been traveling the world essentially covering movie scores. Past performances include “live” screenings of Pirates of the Caribbean, Back to the Future, Ratatouille, Indiana Jones, and more. This was their first time performing the Lord of the Rings trilogy in North America.
Having bought this ticket off of a co-worker, I was locked into The Two Towers. Though I think I would have picked it had I had the option. I remember in middle school facing the exact same dilemma in a music store. Adoring the scores to these films, I wanted (and could only afford) one CD. It came down to Fellowship or Two Towers, with my love of the playful Shire music pulling me towards the first, and my love of the grandiose Rohan epics pulling me towards the second. In the end, I decided on Two Towers largely because it had a nice combination of “happy” music and action music. (Return of the King did not have much of what 12-year-old me classified as “happy” music, ruling it out entirely.)
Towards the end of March, I had the privilege of attending the US premiere of the 2015 animated adaptation of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet at the New York International Children’s Film Festival (NYICFF). The screening took place at the SVA Theatre on 23rd street, which gave me a chance to stop in and visit SVA, where I am a part-time MFA computer animation student.
I have been following this adaptation of The Prophet for a while now, honestly in shock that such a film was even rumored to exist. When I first learned of it, it just sounded too good to be true: it is a (mostly) 2D animated feature length film, with contributions from eight of the world’s leading indie animators, and it tackles subject matter with a lot more depth than slapstick. I was so pleased that Salma Hayek was seeing this through.
To be brief (and spoiler free), the overarching story follows Mustafa, a writer, artist, and teacher whose work was perhaps a little too liberal for his local government. Under house-arrest for years, he is taken care of by a woman whose daughter, a quiet troublemaker, becomes an unlikely friend. When his sentence is up, he is escorted by guards through the town, towards the docks, where he is to be shipped back to his home country. Along the way, he encounters many of the locals, who welcome his return with unbridled celebration (to the displeasure of the government officials). He shares with them eight sermons (a distillation of the original 26 poems), which range from topics of love, work, death, and everything all humans experience in between. These are where the work of the independent animators come through. I won’t elaborate further, but I will steal a line from Variety’s Review, saying that it “…doesn’t shy away from grown-up concerns.”
At times, I did find myself admittedly wanting to fast-forward through the main story, just to get to the smaller inserts done by the indie artists. Each one offered something new both stylistically and in the way they visually conveyed the more mature sentiments of Gibran’s poems. Although the overlying story was interesting in its own right, there was much to be desired for me. The cel-shaded CG was a bit awkward for me visually. Similarly, some of the gags involving minor characters (particularly the seagull and bumbling guard) seemed forced.
Ironically, the children I ended up seated next to disliked the inserts and I was treated to an audible sigh (“Another one!?”) as each one began. After the screening, I overheard the father discussing with his children, asking what they didn’t like about it. The older of the two (with approving nods from the younger) stated that the short animations kept distracting them from the main story, and that they were too wordy, which made it more difficult to follow along. As a child, I know I would have preferred the varying segments over the overall story, but I also know that the depth of those segments would have been lost on me.
I am not going to go into the shorts any more, as I’d like to watch the film once more, as well as give other people a chance to see it for themselves in theaters before reading any sort of deconstruction. And–in case it was a concern–this film does touch a tiny bit on God, particularly during a couple of the inserts. But I never felt like it was being thrown in my face. The beautiful thing about the words of the prophet is that, regardless of religion, they are universal truths and experiences we share by simply being human.
I highly recommend seeing this film. Go see it on the big screen, support dream projects like this, support the indie artists and this beautiful collaboration. Support 2D animation–an animation that asks a little more of its audience–that calls attention to the freedoms of expression we often take for granted. Celebrate the wisdom and words of the prophet.
GKids has announced that the film will hit New York City and Los Angeles theaters on August 7, with a US and Canadian rollout following after.
NYC-based independent animator Bill Plympton visited Blue Sky Studios!
This actually wasn’t my first time seeing Bill Plympton talk. He’s visited my department at SVA a number of times, was on a panel I saw a while ago organized by The Academy and the Society of Illustrators, and I tend to bump into him at NYC events, and support his other animation endeavors. I have quite a few post cards with doodles of his iconic guard dog:
It’s always interesting to see Bill talk, because, unlike many artists who cater their talks based on whether the audience is predominantly students or professionals (not that there’s anything wrong with that!), he is always very blunt and sincerely speaks his mind. He doesn’t beat around the bush about his opinions on animation in the US, about being an animation student today, or about himself and his career.
He’s the first one to tell you that he doesn’t make a whole lot of cash from his films, and that any money he makes goes into the next film. He discussed his decision to launch (a successful) kickstarter for his latest film, Cheatin’, his early days as an illustrator-turned animator, and the freedom (despite limited resources) he enjoys today tackling more grown up subject matter. He was encouraging to many artists, reminding them that they can still create their own work about whatever they want despite being at a larger studio.
Always the advocate of broadening the scope of animation in America, Bill’s talks always touch on this, which is why I enjoy them so much. There’s no reason why more films like his can’t exist alongside your Disney musicals. I personally prefer a grey area in between these “kid” and “adult-themed” films, which is why films like The Wind Rises appeal to me on a thematic level. They tell more mature stories but can still be accessible to younger audiences. But Bill is doing what no one else in this country is doing, and doing so without compromise, and I love that. He shows that these darker topics can be digested without being the punchline like you so often find in “adult” animation like South Park. Again, not that there is anything wrong with that, but there is always room for more!
My friend from high school, Eric Francisco, interviewed Bill for the site Geekscape. It’s a really fantastic read, as Eric asked some great questions, many of which I ponder a lot while working at a studio that solely focuses on family-oriented stories. While at Blue Sky, Plympton did briefly share his thoughts on the matter, similar to this bit from the interview:
They get jealous, they have adulterous affairs and divorces, [even] hook up with prostitutes and things like that, but yet they can’t talk about it. They can’t discuss it in their films. They have to do kiddie films. Which seems like lying. They’re betraying their artistic sensibilities. Whereas I can draw about whatever I want and that’s what makes me an artist talking about my own life.
The independent film life is not for everyone, especially with a beast of a medium like animation. But it’s so great to see people like Bill Plympton continue to carve a niche for themselves. And from the looks of some early reviews of Cheatin’ (which just was released to limited theaters), it looks like that niche will be growing even more this year.
Sunday, the 15th of March, I had the pleasure of watching a good chunk of a special programming block on TCM (Turner Classic Movies), called Treasures from the Disney Vault. TCM’s site describes the program as follows:
Several times a year, TCM will feature a wide array of Disney classics for the entire family to enjoy, including animated shorts, feature films, live-action movies, documentaries, nature films and made-for-television movies.
This months lineup began with the 1959 classic film “Darby O’Gill and the Little People,” followed by a fun featurette starring Walt himself and Darby actor Albert Sharpe, “I Captured the King of the Leprechauns” (1959). Following this was the Silly Symphony “Babes in the Woods” (1932), and the 1955 featurette “The Story of the Animated Drawing.” Then, starting at midnight, TCM screened 1944’s “The Three Caballeros,” the 2008 documentary “Walt & El Grupo,” and lastly “The Fighting Prince of Donegal” (1966). Each of these had great little intros and outros by Disney/film historian Leonard Maltin.
I really do hope that–as the site implies–TCM turns this into a series. Preferably one that happens more than just “several” times a year! My one complaint about the program was that it ran so late on a Sunday night, with the final film starting at 3:30am (EST). I understand that the block needed to accommodate multiple time zones (and I don’t hold it against them or anything), but as a result, I was unable to see ‘Donegal.’ I also did not stay up to watch “Walt & El Grupo,” but seeing as how I own that on DVD I did not miss anything new.
The only other issue with the programming was one I did not even notice. Leonard Maltin tweeted the following:
I had no idea Disney supplied a dubbed Darby O'Gill to @tcm. I'm just as frustrated and disappointed as you are #DisneyOnTCM@TCM_Party
Again, did not even realize this was a thing. Considering this was my first time ever even hearing about Darby O’Gill, let alone watching it, I was less bothered (read: not bothered at all) than those who grew up with it. But I can empathize with film/nostalgia buffs wanting the film presented as un-altered as possible.
I’m not going to sit here now and review each of these films. Perhaps I will in the future (in individual posts), but right now I’m more than happy (elated, actually) to simply acknowledge that this block happened–that this series exists at all. ‘Grateful’ sounds a bit over-dramatic, but that is sincerely how I feel. Very rarely do I get to see a lot of the more obscure live-action Disney films. Similarly, it is also a treat to see many of the black-and-white featurettes that were so prominent when Walt was marketing his films. Sometimes I would be lucky and one of them would pop up as a random bonus feature on a DVD, and would otherwise be non-existent, but it’s nice to see these equally entertaining spots be given a spotlight.
I’m kind of mad at myself. And why? Because this is happening tonight:
The NYC ACM SIGGRAPH chapter is holding an event about the character design and development of Disney’s Big Hero 6. Here are the event details from the site:
Join Character Design Supervisor, Bill Schwab and Character CG Supervisor,Carlos Cabral as they share the art, process and innovation of “Big Hero 6” an action-packed comedy-adventure about robotics prodigy Hiro Hamada, who learns to harness his genius—thanks to his brilliant brother Tadashi and their like-minded friends: adrenaline junkie Go Go Tomago, neatnik Wasabi chemistry whiz Honey Lemon and fanboy Fred. When a devastating turn of events catapults them into the midst of a dangerous plot unfolding in the streets of San Fransokyo, Hiro turns to his closest companion—a robot named Baymax —and transforms the group into a band of high-tech heroes determined to solve the mystery. Inspired by the Marvel comics of the same name, and featuring comic-book style action, Bill and Carlos will share what it’s like to bring characters to life at Disney Animation.
The NYIT auditorium is a pretty cozy venue, so I should have known that it would fill up fast, especially considering that tickets were being sold in advance (which tends to not happen when NYC SIG events are held at SVA or FIT, which are a little more spacious). The thing is, I’ve known about this event for a while, before it was even being advertised. And, as usual, I hesitated to purchase my ticket. And, as usual, the event filled up quickly. I’ve been to enough of these types of talks to know what I’m missing. Heck, if I’m lucky I’ll still manage to see some form of this talk at SIGGRAPH or online featurettes. But that doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t have loved every damn minute of this.
There are so many reasons I should be attending this event. Many of my friends and classmates from SVA will be there, fellow Blue Skyers and SIG friends will be there, the presentation itself will be dope, networking, a badass write up for this sad little blog, A VIDEO FOR MY NONEXISTENT YOUTUBE CHANNEL!? And I threw it all away. Why?
Because the thought of commuting into NYC is very daunting to me. That’s literally it. I am a homebody through and through, but right now that side of me feels very passively self-destructive.
Perhaps shaming myself via the Internet will teach me to get over myself. Hell, maybe this in itself could become a video for my NONEXISTENT YouTube channel. Because this is not the first time my aversion to social situations has costed me a great opportunity and experience. Hopefully it is one of the last..