Thursday, December 01, 2011

"Arthur Christmas" delights and stumbles into the collective Christmas tradition

     Christmas brings a myriad of traditions, including the annual deluge of holiday films. There are three types of Christmas cheer movies. The first are those permanently burned in America’s collective conscious like “It’s A Wonderful Life.” The second tier is at least watchable, like “Ernest Saves Christmas.” The third category is reserved for yuletide kindling –films where Santa is saved, Santa is missing, a holiday romance is almost dashed, and other such drivel.

     “Arthur Christmas,” belongs in category two, whimsical enough to make children glad and entertaining enough to not make parents cringe. The Sony/Columbia/Aardman collaboration answers every child’s question about Santa Claus – how on Earth can one man deliver presents to over two billion children in a single night? The answer is that he can’t – by himself. The North Pole is less holly jolly and more expert precision. Santa, (voiced by Jim Broadbent), is a figure head in an operation led by his techno wizard son, Steve (Hugh Laurie) and an elite team of thousands of elves who seem plucked out of the “Mission: Impossible” franchise. Santa and the first team of elves fly faster than the speed of light in an Enterprise-like red aircraft capable of cloaking itself lest anyone mistake them for UFOs. Hundreds of elves repel from the ship and it is they who do Santa’s real work – delivering presents to nice children. Meanwhile Steve and his team operate from the North Pole’s NASA-like mission control center overseeing every part of the operation. The opening scene is the best part of the film, brilliantly staged and animated with a healthy dose of slow motion action.

     Trouble, for both the stars and the plot, starts when Santa’s younger and more Christmas spirit aware son, Arthur (James McAvoy), discovers that one toy was left behind. And no child gets left behind on Christmas on Arthur’s watch. This starts a chain reaction involving Arthur, Grandsanta (Bill Nighy), and Bryony (Ashley Jensen), the wrapping expert elf who found the gift, racing through the night on the original sleigh to complete the mission.

     This is where the film becomes unhinged. Like most live action and animated films, the main issues with “Arthur Christmas” are due to story problems, not the visuals. Four problems prevent it from being truly exceptional. The less offensive of the group, weird jokes, and stiff facial expressions, are forgivable, in part because Grandsanta is so endearing that you (almost) forgive him for the politically incorrect flubs that tumble out of his mouth like mashed fruitcake. The stiff facial expressions are due to the fact that 3D people are still difficult to animate. Although technology has vastly improved over the past 20 years, even films made by Pixar occasionally fall flat in the face department. Everything ends up looking plastic, which helps explain why there are three “Toy Story” films.

     What are not forgivable are the excessive uses of dialogue that grind the movie to a halt and the introduction of outside antagonists nearly halfway into the film. Several times throughout the movie Santa, Steve, Arthur and Grandsanta begin to pontificate about whether it is necessary to worry about delivering one gift to one child – and these conversations are long. We’re talking now’s a time to get more popcorn long. One could (and should have) easily cut the arguments in half.
     The other damaging aspect is that the film introduces characters from the UN who mistake Arthur and Grandsanta for UFOs due to their lack of flying expertise. This would be an excellent set of scenes if they were introduced 30 minutes earlier. However, due to their late arrival in the film, they feel almost tacked on, as if someone in the final part of the production asked “Hey wouldn’t anyone notice two dudes, an elf and reindeer flying over Idaho?”

     Animation-wise, the film is nearly solid. Story-wise, it needs a little work, but the emotion is displayed expertly on screen. And in a field where lousy Christmas tales and trite sentimentalism are usually the norm, especially for family movies, “Arthur Christmas” has the distinction of rising above the holiday morass.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Kesa Animatic

Met with Tom Bertino last week and got some good tips to improve my animatic. Better camera angles and stronger poses = a better story. So here is the new and improved version. I also changed the main character from a guy to a girl - which was actually my original idea. I'm glad that I went with the original idea:

Kesa is a girl living in a tribe at the end of the Ice Age. Mammoth herds are growing thin so her tribe is having a harder and harder time searching for food. Due to her brother's death and father's illness, no one in her family is able to join the hunt. She goes off by herself and finds a baby mammoth - with surprising results.

And here's the new animatic!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Kesu Animatic

Here is my animatic for "Kesu", a short film debuting next Spring.

Kesu Production Stills

A Hunter seeks out a Mammoth with unusual results.

Thus begins my animated short "Kesu." Why do a 15 second animated short for class when you can create an entire thesis-film like project for the Spring Show? Sounds like a plan to me. The first 15 seconds are my class assignment, then next minute and 25 seconds are the rest of the film.

One day I will create a short subject. But I love fully fleshed out stories. It's why I write screenplays instead of short stories and novellas.

Our professor gave us excellent advice - create 10 to 20 story ideas with 5 unexpected outcomes and 5 reactions to each of those outcomes. That led Alice down the rabbit hole of discovery. I planned on filming "The Fighter." I had created preliminary storyboards, character designs and  was ready to go. But something did not feel right. So I followed my professors assignment and started writing ideas last Saturday at Chipotle. And then the 11th idea came to me.

So don't listen to anyone who tells you wait around for inspiration. Get out there and churn out as many ideas as possible. That's how you come up with something. Blood and sweat. (And good food - that helps.)

Here's the set up of the storyboard that I pitched in class:

Home office set up:

Preliminary stick-figure like storyboards:

Kesu (originally named Kesuk) turnarounds:

Alamet turnarounds:

Size comparison chart:

Kesu and Alamet in action sketches:

San Francisco International Animation Festival

Thanks to Martha Wilson - the Story Development professor at the Academy of Art and my friend David I was able to get a free pass to last night's animation festivities at the New People Cinema.

And what a show it was.

I am astounded by the excellent films coming from Europe. None of the animated shorts were anything like what I have seen here in the states. Due to history the US has a limited view of what animation can and should be. For example, that animation is a medium for children, that it is a genre of film, rather than quality film itself, that it has to be funny, that it has to be linear, etc. Studios like Pixar are changing this but even Pixar has its own style and many other studios are struggling to copy them and DreamWorks rather than create original material.

Not so with the films I watched last night. They were the best of Annecy, a film festival held every year in France. And one gets the impression that only in Europe could such masterpieces be created. There was stop motion, 2D, 3D, figures made from foam core, painted backgrounds, stories about life, bugs, zombie attacks, chickens taking strolls, people dressed as bears, fighter pilots in a dance of death.

I have been to many film festivals, most of which I have chronicled in this blog. But last night's showing was special. Never before have my eyes been opened to what animation can be. What I saw was nothing short of visually stunning, and inspired me to one day create something better and different than what has come before.

I believe that is the nature of true art.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

The Flour Sack

Animation Project #2 - The Flour Sack

The second triumphant video in my ongoing saga of pencil test masterpieces. Look out, world. 

Monday, October 31, 2011

NINJAS! Animation Drawing Workshop

Everyone loves a ninja (because those who don't are carried off into the night).
Here are some Ninja drawings from Animation Drawing Workshop from the Friday before last. This model was AMAZING. She's part of the guild too.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Zephyr Animation now on Twitter

Hey folks,

I've joined the rest of the social media wave and created a Twitter account.
Mainly so that I could claim Zephyr Animation before someone else takes the name.
Don't worry I don't plan on tweeting what I had for lunch (yet.)

hashtag @ZephyrAnimation

Rock on.

Costume Carnival Prt 1

The Academy had a MASSIVE Costume Carnival at Bradley Hall yesterday. Four stages with 2 - 3 models each in scary costumes with super cheesy scary music playing in the background. I stayed until the room became claustrophobic - seriously there were at least 70 students standing on top of each other and sitting at your feet drawing and taking pictures. Like the BART station for artists.

Here are some drawings from the little sketchbook - more to come from the big sketchbook later this week.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Lucky Lenny


Here is my first animated short from Animation I class. I am super excited about this. After years of researching schools, taking drawing classes, reading books, attending seminars, and watching cartoons, I have animated something. Huzzah.

700 sheets of paper later:

The first of many, MANY cartoons.


Saturday, October 15, 2011


Today's adventure took place at the fantastic San Francisco Zoo. The Zoo is beautifully designed with wide open spaces for the animals to roam, gigantic eucalyptus trees that block out traffic and only a 5 minute walk to Ocean Beach.

So here's to les animales, including:

Crane studies:

Deer-like creatures:

Super huge mushrooms (didn't even have to pay extra to see these):

A Koala who obviously had better things to do than give me a face view and Cassowary studies:

Portrait-size Cassowary. He insisted I get a nice front view, as both his left and right were his "good" side.

Black Swans:

Grizzly Bear and last Black Swan:

I love to dig. GRRR!

A rhino, a squirrel and a tapir walk into a bar:

Double vision rhino eating:

Yes, these two were quite depressed:

The ever inquisitive ant eater. What do you see there, Ms. Eater? (I know she's a lady eater because her baby was hanging out in the enclosure next door).

Some lovely scenic shots:

And folks at Ocean Beach:

Mine! Mine! Mine!

And finally, Beach photos: