Saturday, November 28, 2020

Paul Coker, Jr. - Rankin/Bass Christmas TV Specials

 Time for sentimental, Holiday trivia again. And to offer some distraction from the pandemic. Only this time, on Black Friday, the networks slammed us with three classic Holiday specials at the same time: Frosty the Snowman, Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town, and of course, How The Grinch Stole Christmas. Plus, the Minions brought some of their new samples of Holiday havoc after The Grinch.

Good Grief!

That reminds me, "A Charlie Brown Christmas" will not be broadcast over regular TV or cable this year. That may become another rant soon. As usual, the networks didn't waste any time trying to get viewers in a festive Holiday mood. I suppose it's good to introduce these shows to a new generation, especially with the strain and heartbreak of the lock-down. But for me, it was still too soon to watch these shows, with the obvious situation of the networks competing against each other for TV ratings and ad time. Looks like I'm in grumpy old man mode again.

(original copyright Rankin/Bass)

Getting back to my rant, it struck me as I was flicking back 'n' forth between channels, I finally noticed there were two Rankin/Bass Christmas TV Specials up against each other; the stop motion "Santa" (1970) and traditional hand-drawn "Frosty" (1969). Even with the advantage of experience, I still fell under the rosy spell of the old Rankin/Bass universe. Charming, whimsical characters that bordered on the fantastic, even bizarre, especially the stop-mo Santa film. What was in their style that kept viewers glued to the screen after all these years?

(original copyright Rankin/Bass) 

Of course, the Secret Ingredient: artist Paul Coker, Jr.!

Coker was the artist and designer that gave the Rankin/Bass Specials that quirky, off balance, yet lovable look. According, Coker started out as an artist for the Hallmark greeting card company. He also found work cartooning for magazines such as Esquire and Good Housekeeping, and even Playboy. This work got him the notice of Mad Magazine where he developed his own characters and acidic movie parodies. From there, Coker was hired by Arthur Rankin Jr., which pretty much set the tone and style of their beloved Holiday specials through the 1970's.

Since their original broadcasts, the Rankin/Bass specials have become the targets of parodies both in tribute, and out of nastiness. The writer of the article completely overlooks Coker's influence when she mentions the designs and proportions of the Rankin/Bass characters. The nature of animation, plus the pressures of TV production do lead to artwork that looks off kilter, forgettable and many times, unappealing. Especially nowadays, the charm and daring of character designs like Coker's could be bulldozed under completely. Like many animation artists, Paul is modest, and works in relative obscurity.

But like benign ghosts from Christmases past, these old friends shake off the dust, and are brought down from the shelves. It's kind of the way distant relatives drop by, or the way old decorations are brought down from the attic. They may still bring us some magic, and maybe some comfort as we limp through probably one of the grimmest Holiday seasons since WWII. But when it comes to imagine and appeal, here's to Paul Coker, Jr.!

Friday, November 20, 2020

Covid Lock Down Art

 Well, I've fallen behind on my Innovations in Animation articles for my blog. But here's a side project I did to help with morale in my neighborhood during the Covid-19 lock-down this year. These painting were done on bathroom tile for a community art project set up by a neighbor a couple of streets over from my place. It was fun, if a little weird. My neighbors put some heart and soul into this display to cope with the crisis brought on by our worse than worthless administration.

Toluca Lake resident Rick Garman let us place our art in the flowerbed in front of his building. Part of the challenge was making the art waterproof to stand up to the lawn sprinklers. This was my final entry. I call this one "The Show Must Go On!" It was meant originally for Halloween, but it took longer than I thought, so I adapted it for the celebrations we needed after the election. And hopefully when we bring the Covid outbreak under control. Toluca Lake Magazine has a nice article here:

(artwork copyright various neighborhood artists)

And of course there were a few rules-

So far, I think the reaction has been positive. One of my pieces was either taken, or thrown away. I'd like to think someone enjoyed so much that they swiped it, even though it ticks me off a bit if they did. At least I made something worth taking! I didn't think this one was that good.

"Quiet cabin in the woods." We missed out on it this summer.

A couple months later this summer, someone did a curation, and lifted some tiles to a more notable place above the flowerbed: A couple of my pieces were "Ride the Dragon" and "Masked Heroes".

(artwork copyright various neighborhood artists)

(Rocket and Groot copyright Marvel/Disney. 
All other artwork copyright various neighborhood artists) 

Had fun with this guy. Dragons were on my mind this year, even though it's the Year of the Rat.

(Rocket and Groot copyright Marvel/Disney)

I have to admit, I got a bit carried away with this over the summer. I think I put in 8 or 9 pieces! But I wanted to pay tribute to the front line workers whose jobs have been made more difficult due to the pandemic. My curse for cuteness and whimsy dulls down the message a little bit.

Of course, there's the mask message. I'm still infuriated with neighbors who still think the virus is not a hazard, or that wearing a mask is a big infringement on their rights. I guess they don't wear seat belts either. I'm old enough to remember when that was a big issue!

On top of the Covid-19 crisis, we had another brutally hot summer, more record setting forest fires across the west, and unprecedented civil unrest due to police violence nationwide. Besides following the rules of the lock-down, these pieces were the least I could contribute. I'm very grateful to Rick Garman for this opportunity to let me present my art. We all need to pause, and appreciate small acts of kindness in the face of all this suffering and loss. As we head towards a shaky Holiday season, I hope these little bon-bons helped brighten someone's day.

Spidey's mask covers his entire face, so I guess he's okay.
(Starting top clockwise, art copyright Lucasfilm/Disney, DC comics, Time/Warner and Marvel/Disney)

Wednesday, November 11, 2020


(copyright Siggraph)

Due to the COVID-19 crisis, SIGGRAPH 2021 will be held as a virtual-only event. 

 The conference was originally scheduled to take place 1–5 August at the Los Angeles Convention Center. I can't help but see the wisdom of erring on the side of caution.

Technology enables us, and encapsulates us at the same time. Humanity can cope with disasters, but the nature of media in general still calls for people getting together in general. Hopefully, after we find some positive resolution to the Covid crisis, my concern is a that the technology owners will have and even tighter control over us. 

More independent contractors and less employees with health and retirement benefits. Personally, I've tried to keep home and work environments separate. Those days may be over, at least for the current, and upcoming generation of animators and digital artists.

Tuesday, November 03, 2020

Entertainment in the Pandemic Age

From LinkedIn contact Jay Francis: It looks like Disney is able to look ahead, and Disney Plus is getting the lion's share of the Mouse's resources.

In other words - Covid-19 is not going away. At least not anytime soon.

This is still a gamble for Disney since the Covid-19 lock down has kneecapped their usual moneymakers: theme parks, cruises and movie theater attendance. But on the surface, this shift makes sense. 

 So, after voting in this vital election, keep your masks clean, and keep that popcorn popping as you curl up with your favorite media device this winter.

Monday, November 02, 2020

Innovations in Animation - Part 1 - "Twice upon a Time"

With 2020 coming to a close, and to deal with the stress of being shut in, I've started on my list of the most innovative animated films through time.  I'm tired of the year end "top ten" countdowns, so this list will be in no particular order, and having no ranking as far as popularity, but as landmarks that influenced the animation business in regard to new techniques and execution. 

The problems of 2020 will carry over well into 2021, and probably longer, so I want to focus on the achievements of the past, and discuss how technology, business, and the Covid pandemic will shape animation as time goes on. The game has certainly changed with Disney+, Hulu, and Amazon streaming entertainment over the internet.

(copyright Warner Archives)

 My first pick is John Korty's quirky but subtle "Twice upon a Time". I finally broke down, and bought the DVD after watching the film for years on a bleary, old VHS tape.

Where executive producer George Lucas stumbled on the "Howard the Duck" and "Willow" features, Twice upon a Time is definitely a unique film. Directed by Korty in a painstakingly difficult backlit, cut-out style called Lumage, I can see why Twice Upon A Time had trouble finding an audience. Even though it's not a blu-ray, the DVD is a cut above my old VHS copy. Korty was assisted by Charles Swenson and stop motion genius, Henry Selick. (Coraline, Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach).

Twice upon a Time is a fun, underdog story of misfits becoming heroes with Ralph, the shape-changing "All Purpose Animal" and his friend Mumford, a flighty, distractable mime. Lorenzo Music, voice of Garfield the Cat, stars as Ralph, while Mumford is "voiced" only by some original, interesting sound effects. Twice Upon A Time is also chock full of some eye opening visual designs that became obscured on my old tape over time, some of which are not suited for younger children. 

The film had trouble finding its niche. College age test audiences were put off by the cute, frilly layouts of the good guys' world, "Frivoli", where sweet dreams are created for regular human beings rushing about in a black and white world called Din. The villain, "Synonamess Botch", lives in a dark, twisted Hollywood-type dimension called "The Murkworks" where nightmares are created from the screams of Botch's victims. 

The background artists make the villain's world much more engaging with backlit art and some diabolical collages from photographs both mundane and suggestive. The heroes are tricked into helping Botch take control of the Cosmic Clock, by which the villain hopes to control time itself, and subject the "Rushers of Din" to endless, eternal nightmares. Ralph and Mumford get "help" from some whimsical comrades they meet along the way, including a cynical, smart-mouthed Fairy Godmother ("FGM") who guides the heroes with her version of "tough love".

The commentary with Director John Korty and company is a nice recounting of their battle to create this unusual film, and their stories behind the subtle technical achievements they devised to pull off some remarkable effects. Korty and his team used original cut-out art, black and white photography, and water tank effects to create a surreal world where we normal humans are oblivious to the magic going on all around us.

The choice of audio tracks is also a nice feature, although I still prefer John Korty's original witty dialogue over the cruder, profane tracks that were snuck in the last minute. Overall, Twice Upon A Time is nice little gem for animation fans seeking something besides the usual Disney/Pixar releases.  

Twice upon a Time, definitely worth checking out!

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

How Pepe the Frog was hijacked by hate groups - PBS

I was flicking around the channels, and came across this story about artist Matt Furie, and his fight to reclaim his character from alt right hate and conspiracy groups. To anyone working on your own characters, and concerned about your online image, this is a must watch.

I have to confess, I always thought "Pepe" had started out as a hate symbol. My first encounter with him years ago was so repulsive, that the character had seemed to be designed that way.

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Conceptual Artist Ron Cobb Passes At Age 83

 California native Ron Cobb has died September 21, 2020 at the age of 83. Cobb began in 1956 as an animator for Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. Among other films, he created aliens for the famous cantina scene in Star Wars. Afterwards, he contributed his design work to other hit movies such as Conan the Barbarian, Ridley Scott’s Alien, and the beloved DeLorean sports-car/time-machine for Robert Zemeckis' Back to the Future.

Mostly unknown, except to his fans, Cobb represents another unsung hero of science fiction and fantasy movies. Movies that would have suffered without his talent and hard work.

(original copyright, Ron Cobb 1976)