Wednesday, March 30, 2005


If you're a college student, and you're a little older than everyone in your classes, and it's too early for class to start, I recommend plugging into a set of headphones. Because the way some of the undereducated talk is kinda frightening.

On Monday, I overhead some girl talking to her friend about how obviously evolution's wrong because all people don't look exactly alike. This disproves the theory of evolution to her. How do you even answer that? Then she proceeded to talk about Jesus and how, ya know, she believes that there was a man named Jesus who was, ya know, crufifixed (sic), but I don't, ya know, know if I believe that he was, like, the son of God.

I'm tired of this half-assed lack of conviction in America. Believe one thing or the other, not both. And if, over time, you discover new things that make you believe another way, then believe that way. It's best to be open and never rigid. At the same time, you have to have the backbone to believe in something.

I believe in evolution; my toe is firmly on the line of science. Because I can see how science works; I can see, in the skeletons of our ancestors, how evolution made us what we are today. Humans are great like that; most of us have a drive to discover new things. We can look into the past and see how we got here. No other species can do that. Science is visible, observable; unlike some deities I could name.

What sounds more rational? Some invisible, all-powerful guy snapped everything into existence, or the reaction of energy, matter, and motion created complex compounds that, when working together, create life. Isn't that much more miraculous than just being characters written into a novel by a supreme being? Perhaps it comes down to control; if we accept that we control our own destinies, it makes us feel less special. But it should make you feel more special. You get out of life what you're willing to put into it.

To me, holding up the bible and proclaiming it as fact is like, 2000 years from now, somebody holding up Oliver Twist as fact. After all, it's written down, it must be true! Come, join the Church of the Street Urchin, where, as long as you do anything for us, you can always have some more! And did anyone else ever wonder where the Greek gods and epics fit into God's overall timeframe?

And what about dinosaurs? How can people believe in God and still enjoy Jurassic Park? Dinosaurs aren't in the bible, is how I've had it argued to me, so it's all made up, despite over a century of scientific evidence. Of course, no one ever points out that cars, computers, and television weren't in the bible, either. Hey, those are all scientific advances, right? Science is bad. No more doctors for the fundamentalists.

Yeah, I'm being a little childish. Someone is bound to ask the question: Sure, science is great, but who created science? Well, why does someone have to "create" science. Science is just the name we give to the observance of the natural forces that guide existence. I mean, who created God? Ooh, wrap your minds around that one. Okay, now I'm being a lot childish.

My other favorite is when people try to fit the two together. Oh, the seven days of creation weren't literal, they were allegorical? I'm sorry, but that's wrong, too. Religious texts are meant to be literal, philosophical texts are meant to be allegorical. It's weak and half-hearted to say otherwise. The writers of the bible had no knowledge of the scientific processes that led to human life, so they assumed it must have been a god. This is how it was in the ancient world; it was the easiest explanation to make the world less scary, more finite. We don't need this explanation any more: the whole planet is mapped. There are larger issues to deal with. The bible is meant literally, that's all there is to it. It's created to govern, not to enlighten.

I'm also sick of this shit where people are Christians, and they believe in God and Jesus, but they don't go to church. Christianity is not a philosophical belief, it's an organization based on a spiritual faith and belief structure. And it's not a very original one, either, since it basically co-opts every belief structure that came before it. Without the organization around the idea, saying you believe is meaningless. You don't go to church because you can't be bothered to get up on Sunday mornings. You are not a Christian. Christianity is practiced through communion with fellow Christians at a church, not through occasionally giving lip service to some relative who asks you if you believe in Christ. You have to go to church.

It's very, very easy to say you believe in something, but a lot harder to prove it. You have to do the things you profess to believe, and since gods only exist through the practice of faith, you have to practice that faith. So, if you don't go to church, or you believe in a historical Jesus (which is pretty irrelevant), you're not a Christian. Sorry, but you aren't. You can't back it up. By not going to church, you're placing your own concerns ahead of spiritual matters, which is exactly the opposite of what Christians are supposed to do. I may be an atheist, but I know these things. Just like in every other aspect of our lives, people place more value on what you say than on what you do. There's no follow-through. It's half-assed and weak.

So, you can't believe in God AND in evolution. There is no creatvolutionism. Do you go with rationality and realism, or for spiritual succor and fairy tales? I have a better word for the belief system expressed by non-churchgoing Christians who think the bible and Darwin can be placed hand in hand: Convolutionists.

SF Network

"Calling science fiction 'sci-fi' is like calling a woman a broad. It should be pronounced 'skiffy,' as in, if you like peanut butter you'll love skiffy!"

Are you a science fiction fan, like me? Then you must feel abused by the SCIFI Channel, too. They don't respect you, they don't respect the genre, but they love exploiting you. They love it, because you're so stupid that you just keep eating it up. At least, that's what they think of you.

A friend and I were discussing the relative merits of the Skiffy Channel the other day, and we both feel the same way: they don't love SF. They just love money, so they'll show the cheapest crap that could almost be called science fiction and watch ratings come in. Because the SF audience is underserved, and they're being paid lip service to, they'll come running. So here's another helping of our "original" series (one a remake of an old Star Wars rip-off, two based on a movie) and here's a viewing of Mansquito or Alien Apocalypse, and here's where we rape another classic novel (To Your Scattered Bodies Go, or A Wizard of Earthsea), and here's a whole day of some SF series from the nineties that sucked ass the first time around (Sliders). No quality, no care, just desperate attempts to get ratings.

Why do people buy into it? I think SF fans have gotten so used to the genre ghetto that they don't think they deserve any more. Whenever a science fiction movie is popular, like Spider-Man 2 or Jurassic Park or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, it's never called science fiction. They take our genre and make money off of it, but the studios don't call a spade a spade. Science fiction is the most popular genre of film there is. Hell, sometimes, like A Beautiful Mind, it wins the Best Picture Oscar. But no one calls it SF. It's somehow embarrassing. And yet, SF was the first literature to embrace postmodernism and metafiction, which the posers love right now. So suck on that.

The Skiffy Channel didn't start off bad at all. It was dedicated to imaginitive entertainment and thoughtful science. They used to actually air informative programs ABOUT SCIENCE! Imagine that. They somehow managed to serve the Skiffy crowd by airing shows about Roswell, without alienating the SF crowd. For the SF crowd, there were constant updates about the first Mars Lander back in 1996. They would show good old series like Doctor Who. Harlan Ellison hosted a marathon of The Prisoner. And they had a great little TV show, Sci-Fi Buzz, which was dedicated to keeping fans updated about what was going on in their little world--they would go to conventions, to movie openings, to obscure little stores, and talk about what was new in SF. They even devoted space to commentary from Harlan Ellison.

As my friend was pointing out, imagine a panel show with several SF authors talking about current trends in the genre, in fandom, in film, in literature. Hell, even comic books. Imagine a channel that creates programming that champions intelligent, literate SF, and not TV shows meant to enhance a license, like Stargate SG-1. We all knew that the Skiffy Channel wasn't interested in imaginitive science fiction when they cancelled Farscape to make room for Stargate: Atlantis. All they care about is the bottom line, not about promotion. The channel was doomed way back when it was sold to Universal. All of a sudden, the fans are merely dollar signs and numbers, not people with a particular love of science fiction.

Thanks a lot, Bonnie Hammer. Thanks a lot, Universal. Thanks for all of that nothing.

If anyone has a few million to spread around and wants to start up a new cable channel, may I suggest the SF Network. Here's your slogan: "The real sci-fi channel." Just remember that the audience matters a lot more than a quick ratings fix.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Masters of Animation: Bray & Barre

As an entertainer, Bray isn’t very special, but as a technical pioneer, animation might not exist without him. Bray made a fortune on patents and licensing fees between 1914 and 1932 (when they began to expire). Instrumental to the animation boom, Bray created the transparent animation cel so that backgrounds need not be endlessly redrawn from frame to frame. With his partner, Earl Hurd, he developed several advances that made the process faster.

Bray made an impressionistic, pretty short in 1913 called The Artist’s Dream which was strong enough to get him a deal with Charles Pathe. His next cartoon, released in the same year, was Colonel Heeza Liar in Africa, which is regarded as the first commercial cartoon ever released; unlike every film that preceded it, it was specifically meant to be the first in a series. They told the story of an old man, a combination of Baron Munchausen and Teddy Roosevelt, who tells tall tales.

Before long, Bray created the assembly line style of production that is still in place at Disney and other animation studios. By breaking up the parts of the process (i.e., someone draws the backgrounds, someone draws the animation, someone colors and shades, someone photographs, etc.), animation became even faster. Pleased with this innovation and confident that his animators could handle the job, Bray–like Max Fleischer and Walt Disney after him–gave up animation to handle the business end. He soon added another series, Earl Hurd’s Bobby Bumps, a rip-off of Buster Brown.

Bray didn’t reap the rewards of recognition; though he created the Paramount-Bray Pictograph, a weekly magazine feature of newsreels and cartoons, he carried the original Out of the Inkwell cartoons from the Fleischers, but Bray was not much of an entertainer. He essentially created the process, and then others copied it, stepped in, and went on to greater glory. Even the people who worked for him did their best work later for other studios: Paul Terry started at Bray, and Walter Lantz worked there for a time before going to Universal. The Fleischer brothers, too, had more success working directly for Paramount than for Bray. He did not have Disney’s innate sense of story, and the series created at Bray Studios rarely lasted longer than 10 episodes; he just didn’t know what worked.

Though he could be a penny-pincher, Bray does have the distinction of releasing the very first color film. Many people had hand-colored or hand-tinted black and white films in the past, but The Debut of Thomas Cat (1920) was the first to be shot on genuine color film. It was a delightful innovation, but the film was more expensive and scratched too easily, so Bray never pursued it.

In 1924, Colonel Heeza Liar’s Romance became the last film in that series. In 1927, Bray abruptly closed his studios and abandoned animation completely. He never had a chance to innovate sound, which would come a year later. His deal with Goldwyn Studios had expired, and Bray decided to get out of the game, live a life of leisure, and live off his patents. Which is exactly what he did, dying in 1978, just a few months short of his hundredth birthday.

His cartoons may not be well-remembered today, but without them, there might never have been an animation industry to speak of.
RAOUL BARRE (1874-1932)
Barre’s life is something of an enigma, but his career in animation is well documented. With his friend Bill Nolan, Barre developed what can be called the first animation studio. They also developed the system of hanging cels from pegs so that animation could be maintained at the same level and uniformity, as well as an early version of the matte system (involving holes in drawings so that only a part of the screen need be animated), and a technique of background movement to give the illusion of an endless canvas. Barre and Nolan effectively took important steps to modernize animation and speed up the process.

Barre opened an advertising studio in 1914, but, working with Nolan and Gregory La Cava (later to direct the classic William Powell film My Man Godfrey), he quickly moved to commercial animation with The Animated Grouch Chaser (1915). This was a series of cartoons that ran about 13 or 14 minutes, stringing together impressionistic little bits and gags that either told complete stories or little single-joke sketches. They are quite affecting, wildly experimental, and little-seen classics.

That same year, William Randolph Hearst opened International Film Services, his own animation studio, and hired Gregory La Cava to run it. Nolan went with him, but subcontracted a lot of the work to Barre, especially the Phables series. These told little moral tales for modern times. Cooks vs. Cooks: The Phable of Olaf and Louis (1916) told the story of a cook and a chef who compete for respect. The Phable of a Busted Romance (1916) ponders cheapness and kindness. Perhaps these charming cartoons are too cozy for today’s audience.

Raoul Barre got his next break by directing the Mutt & Jeff series, created by Bud Fisher based on his comic strip (Fisher took the credit for directing). Barre’s studio was filled with animators, including future Disney animators Ben Sharpsteen, Burt Gillett, Bill Tytla, and Dick Huemer. Walter Lantz also worked there. But the producer, Charles Burns, was a crook, and after directing several cartoons Barre left them behind in 1918. The Mutt & Jeff cartoons, such as Cramps (1916), were decent, but nowhere near as good as the Animated Grouch Chasers cartoons had been. They were pretty cut-and-dried in terms of story, and there was no room to experiment with technique.

Barre didn’t do much else in animation; he worked on Pat Sullivan’s Felix the Cat series from 1925 to 1927, including the fun Felix the Cat Trumps the Ace (1926). He returned to his native Montreal and died in 1932. Or did he? Social Security lists a Raoul Barre that died in Los Angeles in 1969, so who knows?

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Masters of Animation: Disney & Iwerks Before 1929

Walter Elias Disney was born 5 December 1901 in Chicago, Illinois, but was raised in rural Kansas City. After driving a Red Cross ambulance in France during World War I, Walt got into commercial art by working at the Pesman-Rubin Commercial Art Studio in 1919. There he met Ub Iwerks, an advertising man who would become instrumental to Walt’s future success. Disney and Iwerks were laid off after a couple of months and briefly opened the Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists business, but were unable to gain the advertising commissions they were hoping for.

Ub and Walt soon became interested in animating, and Kansas City in the early twenties was a sort-of Hollywood for cartoon art. Ub was a very talented artist, and Walt soon obtained a contract from the local Newman Theater for a series called Newman’s Laugh-O-grams, which specialized in making fun of local politics, as in Kansas City Spring Clean-Up (1922), which satirized the inefficiency of the KC police. The series was successful and popular enough for Walt to incorporate the company, Laugh-O-grams, and quit his unfulfilling job at the Kansas City Ad Film Service. He hired an animation staff that included Hugh Harman and Rudolph Ising.

The Laugh-O-grams quickly became humorous twists on well-known fairy tales; Walt had an eye to going national. After seeing the first short, Little Red Riding Hood (1922), Pictorial Club gave Walt $100 advance and promised to pay $11,000 for the first six cartoons. Walt and Ub produced them all, including the wonderfully cheery The Four Musicians of Bremen and Jack the Giant Killer, a story Walt especially loved. Interestingly, he also made a short series called Lafflets, that consisted of little comedy bits performed by Walt and his animators and were attached to the Laugh-O-grams. But Pictorial Club went out of business, Disney never got the promised $11,000, and Walt’s company collapsed. It was the first of several financial failures. For a brief time, Walt supplemented his income by producing a few Song-O-Reel live action films to accompany popular songs at the Isis Theater. These songs were played by Carl Stalling, who, at a mere 17 years old, had gained a reputation as the finest theater organist in Kansas. Stalling, of course, would later work with Disney in Hollywood and later make his name at Warner Bros.

After seeing the Fleischers’ Out of the Inkwell cartoons, which combined animation and live action, Walt got the idea for a new series about a human girl in a cartoon setting. Working again with Ub Iwerks, Walt created Alice’s Wonderland (1923). A young actress, four-year-old Virginia Davis, acted her role in pantomime against a white background, and was then inserted into Ub’s animation. Disney contacted Margaret Winkler, the powerful distributor of Out of the Inkwell and Felix the Cat. She loved the film, and agreed to pay $1500 per negative as long as the quality did not dip and Davis continued to play Alice. At last, Walt had a deal.Moving to California, Walt hired many of the same animators from Laugh-O-grams; including Harman & Ising. Virginia Davis moved, too, and Walt and his brother, the financially responsible Roy, animated and photographed the first Alice Comedies, beginning with Alice’s Day at Sea in 1923. The series was a successful novelty, but things changed when Margaret Winkler married Charles Mintz, who took over operations of her company and began to micro-manage the Disney brothers.

Worried about the quality of the cartoons, Walt quickly called for his old friend to take over as lead animator. When Ub Iwerks came to work on the cartoons, beginning with Alice the Peacemaker (1924), he transformed the series, making it faster, more action-oriented, and adjusting gags as he went along. They were funnier, and very successful. Ub invented a new character, Julius the Cat (who, it must be said, looks a lot like Felix), to be Alice’s sidekick. Oddly, the introduction of Julius was another sour note in the relationship with Mintz, who thought the animated character diluted the novelty of Alice. Nevertheless, the series became so popular that the Disney became a serious rival to the giants of the business, Max Fleischer and Pat Sullivan – and all three of them were under contract to Mintz and Winkler!

But Mintz could not enjoy his good fortune, and kept micro-managing. When Virginia Davis’s contract expired, he hired another Alice (there would eventually be two others). But the Alice Comedies continued to be successful thanks to Ub. Probably the best of the series is Alice in the Jungle (1924), which has some great Iwerks surreal moments, including a scene where Julius escapes quicksand by walking on his own vision lines, and when two elephants go to the watering hole; only Iwerks could pull out a double visual pun as one elephant’s trunk takes the shape of a suitcase trunk, and then pulls a pair of swimming trunks out of it. Other great Alice Comedies include Alice Cans the Cannibals (1924), Alice’s Egg Plant, and Alice Foils the Pirates (both 1925). In Alice Solves the Puzzle (1925), Walt and Ub introduced a heavy, One-Eyed Pete. This character became Pegleg Pete in the Mickey cartoons, and still appears today in cartoons such as A Goofy Movie (1995) and Mickey, Donald, Goofy: The Three Musketeers (2004), making him Disney’s longest-lived character. All started with a mouse, indeed.

Ub also forced some technical innovation at the time by complaining to Du Pont about the varying quality of animation cels, which led them to create a thinner cel still used in animation today.

Charles Mintz was increasingly unhappy with the films, however; by the time Alice Chops the Suey was released in 1925, Alice had taken a backseat to the real star of the series: Julius the Cat. And the humor was increasingly sadistic. In Alice’s Orphans (1926), Julius saves a girl from drowning in the ice, only to find out she’s ugly and drop her back in the water, closing the ice over her head. At another point in the cartoon, Julius is unable to get a baby to stop crying. His solution? Smack it in the head with a hammer. Good stuff. But Mintz and Disney kept butting heads over payment issues and the role of Julius. Ub felt that Julius was a better, funnier character, and Walt supported that; Ub was able to sit down with no story in mind and plan out an entire cartoon, making it all up as he went along. Ideas just seemed to flow out of Ub Iwerks, and they were always gold. The live action was costly, time-consuming, and boring. Disney wanted to phase it out altogether.

By 1926, over 50 Alice Comedies had hit the screen, and Walt was finished. Rather than keep fighting with Mintz over Julius, Walt suggested a new series, all animated, featuring the cat himself. Mintz was able to set up a deal with Carl Laemmle at Universal Pictures, but Laemmle changed their direction slightly. With Felix and Krazy Kat packing in audiences, there were too many cats on the market. Instead, Walt went with Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.Oswald debuted in Poor Papa (1927), as fine an example of Ub’s sadistic humor as exists. When the stork delivers a baby to Oswald, the babies don’t stop coming (he’s a rabbit, get it?). Oswald gets so sick of babies that he picks up a shotgun and starts shooting them out of the sky; the storks counterattack by simply throwing the babies at him. Mintz hated it–not because of the sadism, but felt the short was too flat and dull, in part because Oswald was too old and fat. After a quick redesign, Oswald made his proper debut in the clever Trolley Troubles (1927), which was well-received as a laugh riot.

As all this was going on, Ub began to make important technical innovations to cartooning, becoming interested in all aspects of the animation process. He bought three stone mines for materials to grind paint pigment, and though color was years off, he worked with paint experts to create a color palette of special paints that were used in animation until the mid-1980s, when companies cheaped out and went with simple store-bought paints. Ub also redeveloped the animation camera’s operating drive to fix problems of variant exposure rates, making his cartoons look uniform. His love of mechanical devices was evident in The Mechanical Cow (1927), a particularly energetic Oswald adventure. He also indulged his love for aviation in The Ocean Hop (satirizing Lindbergh, whom he admired), which featured the return of Pegleg Pete, this time as a foil for Oswald.

Oswald the Lucky Rabbit became increasingly popular, much more so than the Alice Comedies, and Universal successfully marketed the character. They also owned the character, however, something that became clear to Walt when he tried to renegotiate his deal with Charles Mintz in 1928. Ub had noticed Mintz’s brother-in-law, George Winkler, sniffing around Disney’s studio, and thought he might be spying. When confronted, Winkler revealed that he and Mintz were forming a new animation house, the Charles Mintz Studio, and offered Iwerks a deal to run the place. Loyal to his friend, Ub refused, and tried to warn Walt that everyone else had been hired away. But Walt wouldn’t listen, and was surprised when he met with Mintz a few days later. Oswald had been getting by on a healthy budget of $2200 a cartoon; Walt hoped to get it up to $2500 and really experiment. But Mintz offered a mere $1800. He had dealt with the Disney brothers enough, and was out to prove that the Oswald cartoons could be done without them. He had signed away everyone but Ub and two key apprentices, Les Clark and Wilfred Jackson, who would become two of Disney’s most important animators.

Walt returned to Hollywood, bitter and betrayed; he would, in his life, become more paranoid about losing talent to others, and every time someone left the studio, he only grew more bitter. But for now, he had to think of something different. He and Ub Iwerks began working on Plane Crazy in secret while the other animators worked out the remaining three months of their contracts. Mickey Mouse, though basically a thinly-disguised version of Oswald, was about to hit with audiences; by the end of the year, Walt and Ub would make animation history.

Mintz, however, went out of business immediately. Carl Laemmle felt that Walter Lantz, an animator on John R. Bray’s Col. Heeza Liar series for Paramount, would serve him better as director, and took Oswald away from Mintz. Bill Nolan turned down an offer to work for Disney to work for Lantz instead. The Oswald series faded away, and Mintz was ruined.

Here's a little comparison of Mickey's resemblance to Oswald. Seem familiar?