I'm not the first one to say this, but this year in film has been quite, (to put it politely) peculiar. From the urban live-action/animated fantasy film noir, Detective Pikachu, based on the Pokémon game of the same name, to the direct-to-video SyFy horror adaption of The Banana Splits, it seems any type of adaption can easily get greenlit regardless of how absurd it can be. In a sense, these ideas are rather interesting solely for their weirdness. I don't expect any of them to age too well, but it's still fascinating to consider how this year for movies will be remembered years from now. However, as far as film adaptions of 2019 go, I think we can all agree that the one that left everyone the most perplexed is the upcoming live-action adaption of the 1981 Andrew-Lloyd Weber musical, Cats. Ever since it was announced in mid-July, the film has received a mostly negative reaction from spectators highlighting how uncanny valley it looks. From its bizarre blend of CGI and live-action, to its overall aesthetic and just the mere presentation of the characters along with the universe they inhabit, the look and feel of this movie leaves an unpleasant imprint on the viewers' visual senses.
You can view the trailer here and see for yourself how uneasy this film looks on the eyes. I can safely tell you, that 'unsettling' is a bit of an understatement. The movie is slated for release on December 20th, but it's already obvious why the aesthetic choices don't do these characters or the story any favors. First off, at the beginning of the trailer, we see two of the characters in the middle of the streets wandering about. At first glance, they look like humans emulating cat-like behaviors, which comes as no surprise as that's what the cast of the Broadway musical did, too, except in the next scene, the viewer gets a glimpse at how the characters are costumed. The shot introduces us to this version of Victoria (Francesca Hayward), but unlike the Broadway show, where the costumes look organically blended with the actors, the costumes look oddly intertwined with the actress's body. It doesn't look like a costume. The CGI effects make it so that the fur is part of a human body, rendering it (no pun intended) to look like a mutation between a person and a cat. The next shots showcased in the trailer don't get any better as it goes on. In the following scene, we see Victoria and Mr. Mistofflelees (Laurie Davidson) running to a gate to meet another cat, revealing what the rest of the cast of characters all look like. They all suffer from the same problem: The costumes look way too much mutations than cats! I think the designs of Macavity (Idris Elba), Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench), Bustopher Jones (James Corden) and Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson) to name a few of the more elaborate characters in their appearance add another layer of blurry confusion of where the costume, the CGI and the live actor begin and where they all end. By the way the rest of the cast is outfitted, the costumes appear more skin tight to the point it becomes difficult to discern what is what, which all those factors lead to an uncanny valley foul taste. In addition, the perspective is another aspect of the film that doesn't sit very well with audiences and with good reason. Given the fact that the characters look like a bad combination of both human and cat, the locations and sceneries where they interact are just way too strange and quite unsettling on account of how small everyone appears to be. To match the size of a cat, the actors are set in a way where everything looks relatively as big as it would to the eyes of a cat, but given the character designs, the perspectives come off as incredibly wonky, making it slightly nauseating to lay eyes on.
Admittedly, the soundtrack and vocal sound very promising, but unfortunately with all those factors ruining the overall appearance of the movie, I highly doubt very many music fans, much less die-hard Broadway buffs are going to be too enthused to obtain a copy either physical or digital. The movie in comparison to the Broadway show brings me back some fond memories (so to speak) of when I went to see the musical in 1999 as a pre-teen. I remember being impressed with the choreography, the songs and the layout of the streets the Jellicle cats (as they are referred to) would all gather in. I liked how the costumes naturally suited the performers and how the make-up was done that it presented the characters' personalities and traits so well. You also have to figure that while the premise of Cats is quite simple, there is a certain depth and meaning in the story that adds to its timeless quality like its source material by T. S. Eliot and why the film adaption is just going to end up being a product of its time.
That's actually not to say a film adaption of Cats can't come into fruition, that is, if done correctly. In fact there was an animated version planned. It has been confirmed that in the early-90's, Steven Spielberg's now-defunct company, Amblimation had an animated version in the works, but was scrapped upon the studio's closure. According to the catsmusical.fandom.com site, Spielberg "decided to set the show during the Blitz in London (1940-1941)" and veteran animators, Hans Bacher and Luc Desmarchelier posted some concept art on their blogs. Hans Bacher was responsible for the look and feel of the film and "spent a lot of time researching some rather 'unusual' London environments". Part of the task involved seeking the "trashiest spots [the team] could find" and scrolling down after a photograph of the creative team are some rough sketches and other related art by Bacher himself. In an additional post, Bacher writes about when he came on aboard with the rest of the team, which at the time they were a few months into the project. At the time, the idea was to blend miniature models with traditional animation. However, Steven Spielberg envisioned the animated world of Cats during the Blitz, so Bacher "started fresh with [his] designs" and thus began the research and reimagining of the film. Hans Bacher adds that in London, "behind all the sightseeing tourist area, there were 'backyards', a hidden world of trash and destruction" and that he "still [had] a map of '[his] real [L]ondon' where [he] marked this reference world". He adds that after 17 years, most likely, there's nothing left of the trash and war torn environment. (Mind you, he posted this on October 19th, 2008).
Luc Desmarchelier adds his various pieces of concept art to his own blog, which not only does he do an outstanding job of highlighting the vision for the film, but the audience gets a sense of how the cats themselves might have been animated. Character designers, Carlos Grangel and Nico Marlet worked various pieces consisting of how the characters would have been reimagined for the film and certainly, their art captured the personalities and traits associated with each of the prominent characters spot on! Old Deuteronomy looks as grand as one would have imagined an animated counter part of him. Grizabella looks just as worn down and shabby as she's portrayed in the musical, that the viewer instantly sees how past her prime she is. Macavity looks just as sinister as his musical depiction.
With the abundance of concept art and potential the film could have had, it's unfortunate it never came to be, but upon simply examining it, it's no surprise that it had more visual appeal to audiences than the 2019 film does. To this day, an animated adaption of Cats can still be a viable choice with the right art direction. The key is not only garnering an understanding of the stage show itself, but making the sceneries and character designs more organic. Put simply, the team behind the live-action film appears to understand the stage show very well, but the combination of CGI animation and live-action, coupled with the wonky perspectives is what throws the audience off. You may know the ropes of the source material and nail it perfectly in that regard as well as having a solid cast, but if the visuals don't mesh well, it fails to resonate with the audience the way it was intended to. Unfortunately, this is what happened with the live-action film. Had the audience gotten the planned animated movie by Steven Spielberg or something similar to it, then the reception would yield more positive results.
The concept created by Spielberg works in every possible way because it doesn't try to emulate the live performance the way the live-action film does. From what can be gathered about the production of the animated Cats movie, the environments the characters inhabit would have been far more appealing to look at for a variety of reasons. For one, the characters would have blended better with the perspectives more. At the time, 2D animation was still commonplace in the animation film industry and the trend in 1990's theatrical releases were mostly animated musicals, so designing the characters and sets best suited of a 2D setting is accessible. Once the environments are designed, deciding how the characters should look is easy to decipher. Knowing how a film looks gives the character designer an idea as to what type of character designs would be fitting for the environments created.
This brings us to the second reason why an animated movie would tip the Cats story in its favor. It's common knowledge that when designing a character, the final product should tell the viewer on a basic level who the character is and what their role might be based on visual cues. Putting it into action is easier said than done. Taking live actors from a stage show and deciding on what their animated counter parts should look like is a daunting task, one that requires multiple drawings as with any other animated project. In the case of Cats, it's a matter of understanding the characters and making sure the animated versions showcase those basic traits in their overall appearance. A major flaw of the live-action film is that it lacks showcasing character personality and/or leaves little room in the designs for audiences to get invested in the characters, which we'll compare and contrast in a moment.
Finally, it's the story itself. Cats the musical is a very simple story with a relatable moral. While we all get so caught up in things of glamour, those are things that fade over time and thus, will never bring true happiness. Grizabella, an aged cat, the best years of her life long passed, reminds the other Jellicle cats that in her iconic musical number, Memory. It was easy for them to reject her just because she's old and lost much of the charm of her youth, but if they welcome her back, they will remember never to take the best years of their own lives for granted and that the moment they are presently living in will someday be a memory just like her glory days. Simple stories with thought provoking themes don't need over complicated designs and sets to convey a narrative. Animation is a visual medium that if well written, drawn and directed, it can speak volumes to its viewers. The character designs and layouts of the animated Cats do what animated movies are often known to do: know the story and let the visuals tell it. Both story and visuals should go hand-in-hand and what Spielberg had in mind conveyed this spot on! This applies to any visual piece, especially if it's an adaption of a pre-existing stage show, so these creative decisions are very important to take into account.
The character designs in the live-action lack what this animation could have been because there seems to be less focus on who the characters are and more on trying to create impressive visuals while trying to look like the stage show. This doesn't work because on one hand, these designs fail to resonate with the viewer. If your interest is geared towards taking advantage of modern technologies and less on letting your characters tell a story visually, that is a fundamental flaw in which will prompt your audience to be less engage and rather more perplexed. As stated before, the character designs in the live-action film blurs the line between CGI and the costumed character. This could easily work if there was a proper balance of CGI, live actor/actress and costume (rotoscoping, maybe?), but in this case, it's clear the emphasis was geared towards visual appearance a little too much. The designs became over saturated with CGI and live action, thus creating an uncanny valley mess with little to no focus on designing a character that says who he or she is at first glance. Surely you can spend so much time on CGI in hopes it will match up to the quality of what you hope to achieve, but if your end result is being discussed less about who the characters are and their story and more about how their design is unsettling, your intent to grab the audiences' attention becomes futile. Viewers complained about the character designs in the live-action Cats for that reason. Pair that with the perspectives of their environment and that just adds to the problem. Making visuals too overcomplicated when they don't need to be doesn't encourage audiences to be invested in a story. Sometimes it can easily drive people away or be less invested in the story because there's something too distracting about the visuals. The animated movie on the other hand makes use of the simplicity of Cats by coming up with a specific idea of what their world would look like and how to properly fashion the characters. All of those factors are important to take into account because at the end of the day, each component will be a major factor in what draws people into the story, relate to the characters and (in the case of Cats being a musical), get into the soundtrack.
The main question I had going into this post was if Cats could ever have a more effective retelling and if so, what would have been better suited for it than the live-action film?. In order to answer that, it just takes a specific understanding why the live-action film fails on so many fronts, understanding what worked for the stage performance and how the scrapped animated movie demonstrated a more ideal alternative. Aside from its musical numbers, the show relies so much on character and setting. While visuals are important, they go hand-in-hand with the characters and their environment. If making a live-action film was of the interest of the directors, it would have made more sense to focus on choosing CGI animation over live actors or rotoscoping than trying too hard to blend the two. The reason the canceled 1997 project would have done the story and characters of Cats justice was because the environments and character designs were carefully taken into consideration in regards to story. With the right combinations and less emphasis on just visuals, the goal shouldn't be trying to be the stage performance of Cats, but let it be its own thing. It's an adaption of an iconic musical, but it should be created to stand on its own. By doing so, this is how the final product resonates with audiences. With each and every puzzle piece put together to create a visual motion picture that best fits the tone and ambiance of the story, you'd be bound to latch onto the audience's attention for the right reasons. This is true with any animation or visual medium for that matter. In an era where CGI has become prevalent in both animation and live-action, it's no surprise Hollywood easily abuses it at times to a saturation point, causing the quality of movies to suffer a great deal. If studios begin to return to their roots where their focus is equally attentive to story and art direction as seen with the potential Steven Spielberg's version of Cats would have been, think of countless possibilities that could come of musical films and other forms of animation and live-action.
Normally, I don't use my blog for news related stories, but as a fan of animation, especially Anime, I wanted to address what happened in Kyoto this month and the major toll it has had on the victims and their families as well as the Anime community. On July 18th, Kyoto Animation, best known for their films, and series, Eiga K-On!, Lucky Star, Tamako Love Story and A Silent Voice endured an arson attack at their studio one facility, leaving at least 34 to 35 dead, and roughly 33 injured.
I was away on vacation when it happened. I heard a piece of the story in passing, but did not gather further information until I got back and settled down from my trip. I got back on Sunday last week and started following up on the story on Wednesday night. From my understanding, the suspect involved did this out of spite, claiming that someone in the studio or the studio stole his idea. He threatened the studio, doused the place and some of the employees with gasoline and set everything on fire.
This is a very tragic news story. Waking up one morning to go to work like any other normal day, it would never cross one's mind to suspect something so horrible like this would happen. Anime merchandising company, Sentai Filmworks, one of Kyoto Animation's partners, started a GoFundMe page with the social media hashtag, #HelpKyoAniHeal to help the victims and their families rebuild. The fundraiser has surpassed its goal and is still going strong. I'll leave a link below where you can donate. Please keep the victims and their families in your thoughts and prayers at this time of need.
Help KyoAni Heal donation page
Rugrats in Retrospect: A Response to Saberspark's Video 'What RUINED Rugrats - The Untold Drama' and Why Paul Germain was Spot on about Good Storytelling
In the 1990's, animation was starting to evolve from toy commercial centric cartoons like Care Bears and My Little Pony to creator driven content as seen with Nickelodeon's hit shows of the time like Doug, Rocko's Modern Life and Nick's then pop cultural phenomenon, Rugrats. At the start of the decade, media and technology entrepreneur, Geraldine Laybourne served as Nickelodeon's first president from 1984 to 1996. She and the rest of the team set out to make Nickelodeon the first network for kids with their unique line-up of shows that were original creator content in order to differentiate themselves from other networks during those years. At the beginning, Doug, The Ren and Stimpy Show and Rugrats were the first three animated shows to be greenlit into production. Of the three, Rugrats would go on to be Nickelodeon's biggest hit, paving the way for the network's upcoming animated shows like Rocko's Modern Life, Angry Beavers and Hey Arnold!. More to the point, Rugrats became the face of Nickelodeon throughout most of the '90's, but then in the latter part of the decade and the start of the 2000's, its popularity gradually began to die down, eventually being eclipsed by Sponge Bob Square Pants.
There is a very specific reason as to why that happened. However, contrary to popular belief, the decline in popularity for Rugrats wasn't so much for the addition of new characters, though, there is some merit to that assumption. The real problem that caused this series to lose its momentum, as seen in Saberspark's video, What RUINED Rugrats? - The Untold Drama, had everything to do with the show creators failing to see eye to eye. The show was created by then married couple, Arlene Klasky and Gabor Cspuo along with fellow co-worker, Paul Germain. In this blog post, I'm not going to delve too much into the notorious drama that went on amongst the writers. I'm just going to pin point the main source of it. Rather, I'm going to discuss my thoughts on the situation from the perspective of an aspiring writer and early childhood teacher. Using my animation and illustration background as well as my experience so far working with children, I will explain with an in-depth analysis on why I favor Mr. Germain's side of the story.
For starters, before Rugrats made its debut, the trio worked on a few episodes of The Simpsons shorts for The Tracey Ullman Show from 1987 to 1989 before it made its debut as a television series itself on December 17th, 1989. The Klasky-Csupo team worked on this series during the first three seasons. The Simpsons, which was created by Matt Groening, has been a pop cultural icon for nearly three decades now, and is still going strong to this day, making it the longest running American animated sitcom in history. As we know, the show deals with the titular dysfunctional family and their interactions and responses toward American culture. As simple a concept that may be, what contributes a great deal to the success of The Simpsons is character development and stories that explore the human condition by going into the characters' minds and challenges. Having previously worked on the show, Paul Germain knew that the key to making a top tier animated series was quality storytelling, so his level of expertise would bode well for him in the long run. (I know The Simpsons did suffer a bit in quality over the years, but that's another topic for another day).
When pitching a show for Nickelodeon, Arlene Klasky created the concept for Rugrats with one basic idea in mind that made it truly memorable: "if babies could talk, what would they say?" Having been pregnant during the show's conception, making this a very personal show that was important to her, she had Paul Germain help her elaborate on the idea. Inevitably, Nickelodeon greenlighted production on the series and a total of sixty-five episodes would be in the contract. Rugrats debuted in the summer of 1991. Due to solid promotion, its success and viewership increased immensely. From films, to merchandise, and even a giant parade balloon making its debut in the 1997 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, there was no denying Rugrats became the crown jewel for Nickelodeon. Unfortunately, as Saberspark pointed out, the events building up towards the show's success was ultimately what lead the show to crumble. There were several feuds between Klasky and Germain that would often put Csupo in the middle as the swing voter between the two.
Long story short, Arlene Klasky favored the idea of the baby characters acting more like their age rather than see them acting on adult-like behaviors as seen in the 1992 episode, The Trial in which the babies have a courtroom setup after one of the children destroys Tommy's favorite lamp. Paul Germain was all for writing plot driven narratives with solid character development like that of The Simpsons, but for kids. To make this disconnect between the show creators worse, it was the introduction of Angelica that increased conflict between Klasky and Germain. Germain created Angelica, feeling that the show having an antagonist would tip the scales in its favor. Klasky, having not created the character, strongly disliked Angelica and often complained about her portrayal being too cruel towards the younger children. Inspired by a childhood bully, Germain wanted to explore Angelica's character and craft character driven plots examining why some kids who bully other kids behave the way they do. After Paul Germain's departure in the mid-1990's along with other members of the writing staff, the quality of the writing began to shift. Although that was the time Rugrats skyrocketed in success, a few years later, it began to fizzle and eventually the show ended in 2004. Given all that was happening behind the scenes with this show and in regards to good writing and how children learn and develop through cooperative and explorative play, Paul Germain was definitely on-point when it came to what would have been best for this kind of series.
First of all, since Rugrats is a cartoon about children from ages one to three and a half years old, it should delve into topics that focus on the inner workings of early childhood development. The key ingredient that goes into good writing is having a deep understanding of your subject matter and drawing even more inspiration from the real world. It could be from personal experience, people you know or some new insights you've garnered working with others. All of those elements are vital to good storytelling, if not an important foundation for it. Arlene Klasky was right about one thing. When coming up with an idea for a story, it's a good idea to write something that is personal to you, but her unwillingness to listen to her peers left almost no room for personal growth. Good ideas become stronger when you garner deeper understandings of what you're writing about. If Klasky wanted to make a show that was about babies exploring the world around them, she'd be wiser to take those concepts into account. With Paul Germain's approach to writing, he was willing to add and explore those aspects of early childhood development blended with personal experiences and incorporate them into the plots. For example, when the children mimic adult behaviors, that's a prime example in early childhood development with children letting themselves think freely in a risk-free environment. What contributes to children's growth is their freedom to explore certain attributes of adult behaviors and thus, begin to learn about themselves and how the world works. As is the case with The Trial episode, the babies have a courtroom setting in the living room because they have already seen and know that adults attend jury duty. They are somewhat familiar with how that process works. Certainly they may not understand every little detail that there is to know, but at an early age, children observe adults on one side of a testimony and others representing the other perspective in order to determine who might be guilty and who might be innocent.
To add to this, from my experience so far working with preschoolers and what I've been studying, I've seen how children play certain games like house, kitchen, or store. Social referencing is something that occurs in infants between six to nine months, which is when babies observe how their caregivers react to certain situations and use that as a model for the appropriate response. Preschoolers already know this social cue from their infancy and build up from it. In terms of childhood development theories, Lev Vygotsky theorized that social interaction among other children is what adds to the child making meaning and gaining new knowledge. He also believed that, unlike Jean Piaget, who categorized childhood development in four stages, children's development is continuous and occurs through cooperative learning. Children, thus learn from each other. Jerome Bruner's Three Modes of Representation observes that children continuously and actively learn by adding on previous knowledge. Enactive, which is based inaction occurs during the early years. Iconic, which is image based, occurs during the mid-childhood years. Symbolic, which is rooted in language, takes place during adolescence. Applying this to The Trail, we see these examples playing out in the episode. We see that the children in the cartoon already understand why adults resolve disputes in a courtroom, so there is a bit of social referencing displayed as the babies are seen referencing adult behaviors to respond to their situation. The way that the Lev Vygotsky theory is depicted, the children are interacting with one another and thus, through this type of play, they are learning through cooperation and making meaning in order to find out who broke the lamp. The way that Bruner's theory plays a role is that at the age that the Rugrats characters are, they are learning through action or Enactive imagery and that is knowledge that gets built on with new knowledge over time.
That being said, drawing from real-life examples and knowledge of how children develop are important elements that contribute to good writing. The topic or subject matter you are writing about may be personal to you, but if you don't take the time to build up a deeper understanding from other perspectives and real-life observations, your concept may still be good on paper, but stale in representation. This also leads me to another reason why Germain's approach to storytelling excels over Klasky's, one that should always be at the forefront when crafting a story: who is your target audience? This question may already be a matter of common sense, but its one that seems to get a bit lost as new writers join a team on a show or other type of creative project. As mentioned earlier, Paul Germain envisioned Rugrats being The Simpsons of children's television. What he meant was that the target demographic for Rugrats could appeal to not only children, but adults as well. Just because of the age of the main characters, it shouldn't imply that there can't be stories written in a way that would resonate with older audiences as well. From the sound of the debates between Arlene Klasky and Paul Germain, it was obvious that Klasky failed to understand her audience, much less ever listen to why Germain's writing team was on point. Klasky felt that if they were to make a show about babies, it automatically meant that the main characters should consistently do what babies do. However, there is a major flaw in this thought process: aside from it leaving very little room for character development, it leaves very little room certain topics to be covered, rendering the show's content too stale.
The main problem I see with Klasky's approach as to what she thought was right for Rugrats is that she wanted to play the show too safe. Audiences eventually get bored of that. They can easily tell when writers are taking creative risks and when they are selling themselves short. By having the main characters constantly act their ages, not only are there limitations on story and character growth, but it fails to resonate with audiences. If Rugrats was intended to be a show both kids and adults could relate to, this approach was absolutely not the ideal choice for that demographic. You can't just have one foot in the door for a certain age group and the other one stepping out for another. A good kids show written for both kids and adults in mind should always be an open space for writers to be adventurous and explorative when it comes to dealing with new ideas. Plus this is the type of audience that wants to see something beyond the comfort level. There have been episodes of Rugrats, like the PBS Kids edutainment show, Arthur, where difficult topics were covered, such as neglect, loss of a pet or family member, jealousy, generational differences and of course, child growth and developmental milestones. There have even been episodes that deal with fears adults struggle with and new experiences that come with each stage in life. Even most impressive was that there have been holiday specials that focus on Hanukah and Passover and their religious significance, something that not very many shows at the time were covering. Being open to topics like these make room for both kids and adults to have a dialogue with one another. Because early childhood development is the seed that shapes how we grow up as our earliest experiences shape us, our perception of others and the world around us, it makes more sense that character driven plots were the best way to construct an episode of a show like Rugrats. Playing it safe with very little for the characters to do eventually alienates viewers and thus, that is why Paul Germain had the right idea all along. Even so, when it came to Angelica, her role wasn't solely to be a one-dimensional bully as mentioned earlier, but rather to represent a figure of the type of kid everyone has to deal with at times. As children grow up, they will always encounter a bully. Contrary to some of the stereotypes portraying bully characters over the years prior to Rugrats and other shows afterwards, there are underlying reasons why some children lash out the way they do. Over simplifying or dodging the subject altogether is not only playing storytelling safely, but it's also denying the reality of the world we live in. (I would like to delve into the topic of bully/brat characters in kids shows in a separate blog post sometime because I think it's a topic deserving of its own post).
With all that has been said and done and how well Rugrats aged as a pop cultural icon, in the end, it was Paul Germain's values as a storyteller that made it stand the test of time. With all due respect to Arlene Klasky, who undeniably had a brilliant idea for a television show, her concepts sounded good on paper, but Germain had ideas to help take her concept up another step further. It was unfortunate that Klasky and Germain failed to find common ground, but one can't deny that it's one thing to have a good idea on your hands. It's a whole world of difference to build up on it. Going off of Klasky's approach, there would have left very little room for character development and growth due to limitations on plotlines as was the case with the later seasons. Germain had all the right pieces in mind that fit into crafting good stories that would resonate with the show's respective audience. With an understanding of real world examples, such as studies related to the subject matter that the series centers around and personal experiences along with comprehending who the show is for, those are all important factors that contributes to both a show's quality and increased level of success in the long run. Stories can teach us about our struggles and shed them in a different light when delved into correctly, inspiring viewers to ask themselves the right questions and reflect on their own situations. By playing it safe and shunning other suggestions to further improve your concept as well as knowing less about who your target audience is, you not only put limitations on the potential of your ideas, but also on yourself as a writer. The more explorative you become with your concept and how it relates to the real world along with knowing what kind of stories your audiences are hoping to see, the better rounded you become as a creator. Your concept will grow and flourish, reaching its full potential. As with any creative medium, it will always be a continuing process that no one ever stops learning from because our experiences never stop shaping us and endless knowledge is always being spread around. You yourself will never stop learning. It's either you're open to it or you just stick to what is already familiar to you. By the latter, you will have many missed opportunities. By the former, you will constantly be exposed to them and those new opportunities and insights are what you give your audiences in return.
Marc Brown, who is known primarily as the author of the Arthur children's books series, is a three-time Emmy award winner behind the PBS Kids TV series of the same name. Born and raised in Erie, Pennsylvania along with his three sisters, he grew up listening to his Grandma Thora's stories, which eventually inspired him to come up with and write his own stories as he got older. Aside from sparking his interest in writing, Thora also sparked his interest in drawing. Marc began using watercolors in high school after his teacher introduced him to the medium, which he continues to use in most of his illustrative works. Among his influences are Cubist artist Marc Chagall and fellow children's book writer and illustrator, Maurice Sendak of the Where the Wild Things Are fame. Marc majored in graphic design at the Cleveland Institute of Art after receiving help from Grandma Thora. Since then, Marc Brown pursued children's books even while taking up other jobs before pursuing the career path officially.
To this day, Arthur continues to air, becoming the longest running children's animated series in the United States and the second longest running animated show behind The Simpsons. The television series made its debut on October 7th, 1996, two decades after the first Arthur book, Arthur's Nose was published. Both the books and the television series center around the everyday life and challenges of the titular character, who is an 8-year old anthropomorphic aardvark, his friends and family. The topics of the books deal with issues and challenges children face such as trying new things, first days of school, effort and success and working together with peers. In the television series, there are episodes that cover difficult issues families struggle with such as autism, cancer, dyslexia, Alzheimer's, death of a pet, Asperger's syndrome and coping after a devastating event.
I had the pleasure of meeting Marc Brown back in 2014 at a talk he was giving at the Boston Public Library. The lecture was a part of the Gateway to Reading Lowell Lecture Series. Marc discussed what inspired him to become a children's book author as well as his creative process, how the people he went to school with when he was in third grade and family members inspired the characters in the Arthur books, other books he was working on and other authors he worked with. When on the topic of how Arthur became a TV show, he cited the late Fred Rogers (Mister Rogers' Neighborhood) as his main influence. PBS wanted to make a television show based on the Arthur books as a means to encourage children to read. Marc recalls "what PBS wanted to do with Arthur was to make more kids want to read by watching television. I thought that was a wonderful use of both animation and TV. And the best role model was my buddy Fred Rogers, who I think used television in such helpful ways to kids and families. I miss him a lot." Marc then goes on to show the audience some clips from the animated series. "We did a lot of shows, things that you couldn't do in a picture book as well. Like a lot of families, including ours have dealt with the problem of Alzheimer's and Arthur's having some problems with his Grandpa." The first clip shown is from the episode, Grandpa Dave's Memory Album, featuring late comedian and actress Joan Rivers in a special guest appearance followed by another clip from the episode, The Great MacGrady, which dealt with the topic of cancer. Marc then goes on to show more clips from the animated series featuring other guest appearances including Larry King, Matt Damon, Neil Gaiman, Ming Tsai the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, Mike Fincke, Michelle Kwan, the late Koko Taylor, Taj Mahal, Frank Gehry, Yo-Yo and of course, Fred Rogers. After the montage of clips, Marc talks about his experiences meeting four presidents after writing the book, Arthur Meets the President and shares some fun and humorous anecdotes from his travels. He then talks about a book he illustrated, titled Wild About Books, written by fellow children's book author, Judy Sierra. The writing style in Wild About Books pays homage to Dr. Seuss, who is known for famous titles such as The Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham and The Lorax. Marc shows the audience his illustrations as he narrates the book and concludes the lecture by saying "if I ran the zoo, all the teachers would make more money than movie stars because what they do is a lot more important. Think about that".
After the lecture, there is the question time taking place, starting with the kids and then the rest of the audience. When my turn comes up, (timestamp 48:16), I ask about how does the team go about the difficult topics covered in the show. Marc's response goes as follows:
"Well, I'm glad that you are interested in that because...it's kind of a detail that a lot of people don't know about. Because we deal with so many issues that are difficult, most people don't want to deal with those [topics] with kids. We have a wonderful advisory group and we go to people who are specialists in those fields. We talked with a lot of people who know about cancer and they know about families..., dealing with that and how to be helpful, what we should put in the show, what we shouldn't put in, what's age-appropriate. So it's...our advisors who really helped us a lot and as I was saying very quickly when I showed you that little reel about our guest stars, Matt Damon's mom who teaches at Lesley is one of our advisors and she's really good as they all are. And we have great young writers! They...will get together once a year and we'll make a list of things that might make good show shows and...one day I said 'desk wars'! And they wrote a whole story about kids and their desks and classroom and the wars that they were having with... each other...or head lice! Who's going to deal with head lice? We are!"
The next question is from a little girl who asks if any of his books have been adapted in braille because her mother is blind, to which Marc replies that "there are quite a few Arthur books that are in Braille. I was working directly with the Perkins School". At the 52:49 timestamp, Kathy Brodsky, a clinical social worker who also writes children's books herself comments on the work Marc and his wife, Laurene Krasny Brown did on Dinosaurs Divorce: A Guide for Changing Families and When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death, commenting that she has used the books "for people of all different ages and they've been terrific". Marc turns everyone's attention towards Laurene for a round of applause and describes how she went about writing those stories. "Laurene worked at...Harvard with the brilliant Howard Gardner for many years in project zero and did a lot of research of children and media. And she's so good at taking those hard issues and...getting the right questions for families to talk about". The last question is from a little boy, who asks Marc what inspired him to make Arthur into a TV show to which he responds "well, like I said, I wanted kids to read and I wanted kids to go to the library and pick out more books. And Arthur is all about reading... [W]hen he has difficult things in his life, one of the first things he does is go to the library to try to learn about it". After Marc thanks everyone for coming and supporting his work, there is also a book signing taking place.
I purchased a copy of In New York at the book signing. When I get to Marc's table, I briefly introduce myself and tell him what I'm studying at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (animation at the time). I then expressed my interest in writing and illustrating my own original stories and characters, so I asked his advice for aspiring writers. Marc's response was very simple: just keep writing and exploring. You just need to find what is inspiring to you and keep practicing the skills. If you have a great idea you want to write about and it's important to you, keep working on developing the story and character you've been working on.
Of all the advice I received that year in regards to getting started with creative ideas, this was one of the strongest and it stuck with me ever since. Sometimes it's easy to get so caught up in the little details about how people get into writing a book (or any other form of media for that matter), but what they often forget that it's the craft that goes into writing and illustrating the final product people value most. The time and effort put into a project and the quality of writing is what resonates with your audience in the end. If you can write good, enriching stories and characters that resonate with the reader, you are on the right path. In the case of writing children's books, it's important to learn about your age group, what your topic is, do the research, seek good help and information from others who specialize in the topic to decipher what is an age appropriate way to tell the story, develop the idea and most of all, you will never stop learning.
Disney has been a staple in animated films for eighty years since its release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937 and continues to enlighten children and adults with their clever storytelling, memorable characters and of course, timeless tales through the art of animation. Walt Disney, the man himself behind the famous company name once reminded us “that it was all started by a mouse”, which made its debut in 1928 in the short film Steamboat Willie. From the early days of Mickey Mouse in short films to full-length animated features like Snow White, Fantasia (1940), Bambi (1942), Cinderella (1950) and Lady and the Tramp (1955), Walt Disney and his creative team continuously pushed the boundaries of the art form, capturing realism and life for their characters and the world they inhabit by using techniques such as the multi-plane camera, cel animation and (when it would be effective), rotoscoping. Until his death in 1966, Walt Disney had spent his career, adding to his creative and innovative repertoire. With live action films, theme parks and animatronics also a part of his company’s innovative collection, no one can doubt if Walt Disney was alive today he would be welcoming of 3D (CGI) animation as well and thus, be ready and willing to explore is creative potential. In fact upon the debut of Pixar’s first full-length CGI animated feature, Toy Story in 1995, which the Disney company distributed, Walt’s nephew, Roy E. Disney said so himself that his uncle would loved the film.
Given the Walt Disney Animation Studios’ success in the 1990’s during the Renaissance era to its decline in the early 2000’s and downsizing throughout the entire decade to its resurgence in the 2010’s, one might be wondering, will Disney ever create a new film using traditional animation? Perhaps the best way to answer that is to evaluate what happened in the 2000’s and what the company is experimenting with nowadays.
Surely it would seem that with the success of Pixar, today's popular releases like Frozen (2013) and Big Hero 6 (2014) and the decline of Disney in the 2000’s, it does seem that hand drawn animation would be a thing of the past. As Pixar released hit after hit with Toy Story 2 (1999), Monsters, Inc. (2001), Finding Nemo (2003) and The Incredibles (2004), Disney would have a few successes like Lilo and Stitch (2002), but suffered major failures with Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001), Treasure Planet (2002) and Home on the Range (2004). The following year, Disney released its first CGI animated feature, Chicken Little, which was a financial success, but was completely out of favor with critics for its notorious lackluster story and dislikable characters. Throughout the remainder of the decade, Disney released three more animated features, two of which were CGI, Meet the Robinsons (2007) and Bolt (2008) and a 2D feature, The Princess and the Frog (2009). Meet the Robinsons was not as successful as Bolt and while The Princess and the Frog was a box office success, it failed to exceed expectations for two reasons. One of which was as current president of Disney and Pixar, Ed Catmull indicated in his and the late Amy Wallace’s book, Creativity Inc, Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration that the “marketing folks warned us: Having the word princess in the title would lead moviegoers to think that the film was for girls only” (Catmull, Wallace p. 268) and that there was also the issue that it was released five days prior to James Cameron’s Avatar. Another set back, which was highlighted by Pixar and Disney’s current chief creative officer, John Lasseter in an article by Variety, he stated that “[he] was determined to bring back [hand-drawn animation] because [he] felt it was such a heritage of the Disney studio” and that after delving into details via research, the results revealed that the film “was viewed as old-fashioned by the audience”.
In an article by Mitchell Stein on The Mickey Mindset Blog, entitled Will Disney Ever Return to Making Hand-Drawn Animated Films?, there is mention of how The Princess and the Frog and the 2011 Winnie the Pooh both failed to compete with other film releases and financially fell short of expectations. Stein goes on to further explain that after Moana, although Disney has no 2D animated films announced in the years to come, he reminds readers that “traditional 2D animation still continues to live on in different forms at the Walt Disney Animation Studios in unexpected forms. In recent years, Disney has found ways to blend unique styles of animation between CG and hand drawn 2D to create stunning results”. He discusses the Academy Award winning 2012 short, Paperman, which made its debut alongside Disney’s 52nd feature animated film, Wreck-It Ralph and pinpoints that Disney “blended the use of traditional animated over CG-rendered work. The result is both stunning and immersive, showcasing Disney’s ability to push innovation and creativity to unexplored frontiers”. (To learn more about the making of Paperman, the film’s director, John Kahrs discusses his process in an article by fxguide, which you can find here).
In addition to Paperman, other short films such as Feast (2014) and Inner Workings (2016) were also created with this technique. Even so, Moana, which is mostly CGI animated, there are also a few aspects that are animated in 2D, such as the opening and the tattoo character, Mini Maui. According to an article entitled Disney’s Oscar-Winning Software Brought ‘Moana’ to Life, But Could a Full Length Movie Be Coming Soon? by Sam Cooper on Movie Pilot, Disney is creating these new animated techniques via Meander, a program that juxtaposes 3D and 2D and delves a bit into how it works. To put it simply, Cooper highlights in bold letters that the program “takes the first layer—a moving, multidimensional image—and allows it to drag the lines of the second layer along with it, filling in the gaps of the hand drawings and letting the hard lines take the spotlight”.
With Disney continuing to innovate as they have always done over the past 80 years, possibilities are as endless today as they have always been in the past. The company has no doubt, had its ups and downs as, especially after Walt Disney's death. It can be a major challenge for a company to adopt a similar mindset as its founder, an example seen in recent years with Apple, Inc following Steve Job’s death, but once a company understands what made their past projects great, they are able to display that same craftsmanship and spirit as the company’s pioneer. The studio was able to bounce back in the 1990’s with the Renaissance era by adopting new innovative approaches to storytelling while retaining the spirit of the classics that made Disney famous and are doing it again in the 2010’s. Innovation in both animation and narrative are the reason the company continues flourish and therefore, 2D animation is not a thing of the past. It’s simply evolving with the times. Disney appears to be exploring new techniques so that the art form would continue to be fresh and new rather than look like they are trying to recreate the past. This is actually no different than the early days of Pixar, experimenting with CGI short films before Toy Story’s debut or how Walt Disney himself experimented with new techniques by starting small and then building up. What is important to note is that Disney, like every other company built around innovation is constantly evolving and failure occurs in the process, not because of the art style, but because of the timing of their releases, how they go about marketing and of course, lack of innovation in the animation techniques. That being said, Disney can make a successful new 2D animated feature through innovation in their animation techniques and retaining their classic spirit without trying to blatantly repeat what they had already done before.
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