Monday, September 26, 2011

John Musker on the Art of Animation, Part 1: Musker's Humble Beginnings (featuring John Lasseter, Brad Bird, and Tim Burton!)

A few months ago I attended an Animation Master Class with none other than John Musker, director of The Little Mermaid, Hercules, Aladdin, and Princess and the Frog.

It was quite the experience, since, as you might guess, Musker is a wealth of information and wonderful stories.

But, before I get into any of that, I want to talk a little bit about where I attended the Master Class. The Walt Disney Family Museum, situated in a corner of the quiet little Presidio right off of the Golden Gate Bride in San Francisco, is a dream for anyone who appreciates Disney. The museum begins with a simple room, filled with Walt's various awards, some photographs, and other random memorabilia to give you a taste of what's in store.

But that's just the beginning.

You walk into the first room and are presented with loads of information, interactive video, games, photographs, artifacts, etc. from Walt's childhood. You get narrated anecdotes from Walt himself about when he was growing up, complete with animation and photographs. The museum does an incredibly good job at letting you understand every facet of every stage of Walt's tremendous life. It moves gradually trough each stage, showing off examples of the works Walt created in that time, such as the Alice shorts, Oswald cartoons, etc. Each of the 10 roooms present you with more letters, stories, pictures, merchandise, and other mementos that let you know just what kinda guy Walt was.

Oh, and the Disneyland room is marvelous, with a massive diorama of the park as it was in 1955, complete with a bunch of video and attraction posters and other fascinating things.

The museum concludes with a small TV playing broadcasts from various different sources on the day of Walt's death, accompanied by a large wall of quotations, comics, and other art from that day commemorating Walt Disney. It is a tender send-off, and a perfectly bittersweet way to conclude a journey through that man's life.

As you can tell, the museum is not only comprehensive, but exhaustive on the elaborate life of the man behind it all. You can really appreciate the museum's dedication to not telling the story of the company, but the life of the man. It is apparent that those behind the museum really care about Walt's legacy, which is no surprise since his daughter, Diane Disney Miller, is one of the museum's co-founders.

Needless to say, I loved the Walt Disney Family Museum. It is fun, interesting, and an in-depth, tender look at the life of a legend.
Now, on to Mr. Musker. After walking through the museum (at a pace faster than I preferred since I had to make the class), I went to the small auditorium down below, which I estimate held about 50 of us.

John Musker stood at a podium at the bottom of the small room and simply talked to us about animation and his career so far.

Mr. Musker began with his education; he received a bachelor's degree in English, with the hopes that it would make him read the types of books he'd never get around to reading otherwise. He enjoyed literary studies, but his true passions lied in the worlds of drawing and film. In fact, he drew caricatures and comics for his high school paper, and made super 8 films with his friends growing up (although they never got incredibly focused on their main film--the actor was 14 when they started the movie and 17 when they finished, since they had to end it then or they'd lose their actor when he left for college).

After graduating from college he decided that he ought to pursue his true passions, and settled on applying for a position at Disney's animation division. To get hired he had to submit a portfolio of his work, and Disney was looking specifically for good life drawings of animals. It was in Chicago, the winter following his college graduation when young John Musker went with his sketchbook to the zoo in an attempt to sketch his way to glory. However, it was so cold that he could hardly even feel his hands, let alone draw something that would impress Disney. So, he compromised by going to the local museum and using their dioramas as models for his sketches. (He also got a little distracted and drew some caricatures of the museum's guard, who looked over John's shoulder to correct his drawing by stating, "My hat has eight points on it, young man!")

Disney rejected John Musker. They told him his portfolio didn't meet their standards, calling his life drawings "too stiff." (Ha!) Then, a few months later, he received another letter from Disney recommending that he attend CalArts, since his résumé and portfolio had a lot of potential.
So, he did.

And, wouldn't you know it, he was in the same now-legendary CalArts course with John Lasseter and Brad Bird. After learning that, it came as no surprise when Mr. Musker said he learned as much from his fellow students as he did from the teachers.

Although his pursuits lie in the field of animation, Musker's real gift shines when he indulges in the art of caricature. In fact, he told the majority of his presentation through various caricatures of people he projected on a screen at the front of the room. One of the first ones he showed us was of an enthusiastic, big-haired Brad Bird with thumbs high up in the air, accompanied by a bursting speech bubble which read "We can change the world, maaaan!" I can definitely picture Brad Bird acting like that, especially in college. Very funny stuff.

That led Musker to a short anecdote. Brad Bird loved Spielberg's work, so he, Musker, and some other CalArts students went to the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood to see Close Encounters of the Third Kind when it first came out. Brad, being excitable at the premiere of such a Spielbergian movie, enthusiastically pointed out Richard Dreyfuss sitting at the front of the auditorium. He exploded from his seat, bursting with enthusiasm as he ran to greet Mr. Dreyfuss. Moments later he sheepishly walked up the aisle back to his friends, muttering "That wasn't Richard Dreyfuss." Apparently, Mr. Bird still denies that that ever happened.

So, after attending CalArts with all of those other talented individuals, John breathed more life into those animal drawings and got hired by Disney. Starting out as a straight animator, his first project was The Black Cauldron. He remarked that animators are type-cast just like actors are--some are better at animating comedy, some at drama, etc. For that reason, he was assigned the villain of the film, The Evil Horned King. After struggling for a memorable character design, John bounced around some ideas with his fellow CalArts alum John Lasseter. Lasseter asked Musker, "Have you seen Tim Burton's sketchbooks? He's still at CalArts, but there's a neat style there you might wanna incorporate with the Horned King."

So, Musker went to Tim, and the result was a slew of awesome drawings, which included gnarly horns, unique hands and eyes, and all other types of things that would have made the bad guy thoroughly more interesting. But, unfortunately, the ideas Musker pitched to the older, more traditional fellas leading the production were far too outlandish and weird--these guys were from the era of Bambi and Jungle Book and couldn't handle things as odd as hands for eyeballs or gnarly tree-horns that grew and shrunk according to the King's mood.
Part II coming soon! This will feature more lovely anecdotes, related to the productions of The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Hercules, and The Princess and the Frog, as well as what Mr. Musker plans for the future. Check back soon! You won't want to miss it.


Sunday, September 18, 2011

'Lion King' royally kicks box office's butt

The first of two weekends that The Lion King is seeing the big screen again, it made a killing at the box office. The most popular film of the weekend by far, it made almost $30 million at 2,330 theaters, beating out Contagion which didn't even make half that much.

This may seem surprising, until you realize that The Lion King is the highest-grossing hand-drawn animated film of all time, with a $600 million gross (after ticket inflation).

If you went and saw it this weekend, I commend you. If you didn't, go and see it. You only have one week left!

And, heck, if you already saw it, go ahead and see it again. You know you want to.


More on Pixar's 'La Luna'

Pixar's short film, La Luna, is getting more and more buzz by the second.

Maybe it's because the film will soon be released to all audiences in just half a year, attached to Brave. Perhaps it's because, unlike other Pixar shorts, La Luna has already premiered and been shown at numerous film festivals. But the most likely reason? It is getting rave reviews from all over the place.

Mike over at The Pixar Blog got to talk with the director, Enrico Casarosa, which you can read about here. They talk about everything from its arduous production to its unique premiere to its unparalleled sound design. Oh, and Michael Giacchino, who is "really a storyteller." It's a rather stimulating read, which makes me jealous that Mike got to see the short already. Psh. Anyways, he says the short is the "most artistic short to date, marked by simplicity, beautiful visuals and sound, and a boldly European feel".

Stitch Kingdom has a nice article summarizing the short and its inspirations, as well as a contest for a signed poster.

The Pixar Times gives us a look at the short via the concept art on the left, drawn by Enrico, as well as a 30-second clip below.

La Luna will be attached to Brave summer next year. And I cannot wait to see it. It looks just plain wonderful.


Friday, September 9, 2011

Making a Pizza Planet Truck

Remember that real-life Up house that got a bunch of attention a few months ago? Yeah, that was awesome. And awesome in more than one way, it turns out, since I'm guessing that project is what inspired these guys to make their very own Pizza Planet truck.

The project, a documentary entitled The Road to Pixar, is being produced by a group of young film students who have gathered inspiration from Pixar's many films, and want to pay the studio homage. Once the truck is complete, which will include every detail from the dirty yellow paint to the "YO" on the tailgate, it'll go on tour hitting up college campuses along its journey to Emeryville, CA, where they hope to show their hard work off to the folks at Pixar.

Being filmmakers, they intend to document the whole process of creating the truck. Not only that, but during their road trip they're going to "interview as many people as possible about how they have grown up with the Pixar film canon (The Toy Story trilogy especially) and how it has effected their lives."

To complete their project, however, they have gone to the World Wide Web for fundraising help. Their IndieGoGo page asks for donations ranging anywhere from $1 to $1,000, each price tier giving you a little something for your cash, including DVDs of the film, your name in the credits, and even replicas of parts form the car.

Help them out if you can. They're far from their $4,500 goal and only have a couple of weeks left. I think it's a very worthwhile endeavor.