Sunday, January 30, 2011


In my Manhattan apartment, overlooking pillars of rain moving across Central Park, the phone rings.
“Hi Sweetie.  I’m afraid I have some terrible news.” 
It’s Sam calling from Paris.

“I’m sorry to tell you Michel died this––”  
Sam continues speaking but I don’t hear what he’s saying. At such times, something takes over the brain: a protective white fog, an override, a mental detour. I saystupidly:
    “I have the mailbox you asked me to get for you.”
    “Oh, fuck the mailbox.”
    “What happened?  How did he die?”
    “I don’t know. It was something to do with his heart. You know he never took care of himself. So young too. . . Look, I just wanted to let you know...”
    “Yes. Thank you, Sam.”
    Sam doesn’t like talking on the phone.
    I hang up and feel numb for the rest of the evening. Even though I’d expected this news and had steeled myself against it, that does nothing to prepare me for the stark finality of Michel’s death. I want to call him; I stupidly feel that if I could just talk to him on the phone, he wouldn’t be dead any more.
    It’s the next day that the grief hits.
    My knees buckle and I fall to the floor, sobbing. Why do our knees give out when we’re overcome with shock and sadness, I wonder? Joy makes us jump up and throw our arms in the air, but grief make us sink to the ground and sucks the life out of us. All the ambitions, struggles and desires just drain away. Grief leaves us softened and diminished.
    Picturing Michel cold and dead in Paris makes me rail against the knowledge that I will never talk to him again, never again see his sad brown eyes, his tiny handwriting, hear his surprised laugh.
    I call in sick and take a taxi downtown to the end of the island. I want to get away. From what, I don’t know. From death, perhaps? I can’t actually think, I just know I must go to the statue of Liberty, which is a gift from, also closer to, France.
    I take the Staten Island ferry, mistakenly believing that the statue of Liberty is there. When I find it isn’t, I wait for the return ferry in the Staten Island Museum, numbly marveling that periodical cicadas can live underground for seventeen years, then emerge in broods, climb trees and transform into winged singers. 
    On the ferry back, I see dozens of silver quarters lying on the cabin floor and wonder what happened there. Forever frozen images: bugs, coins and cold sea spray.
    Eventually, I get to the statue of Liberty, on Liberty island it turns out, where there are, thankfully, few tourists. The sky is icy blue and the sun shining stupidly as I say goodbye to Michel.
    Death may diminish us, but it also adds grief to our life. We do gradually come to grips with it, wrestle it into a corner, lock it up so it doesn’t interfere with our life too much. But every time we open that door, it’s still there, as fresh and sharp and blood-thirsty as the first time it bit us. Unlike a lost friend, grief never really goes away, it stays with us for the rest of our life.

Sunday, January 16, 2011


Background painting for Pochahontas, Walt Disney Feature Animation.

Do you think animation is a bastard branch of the arts––not real cinema, not real art? Do you think it’s great fun to work in animation? Do you think people who animate are crazy? Here are some interesting facts about some of the specialized talents and plain hard work involved in this very complex art, that may change your mind.
    First, most animated films have a script written by a Hollywood screen writer. This script is used by Hollywood stars to record the voices of the animated characters before the animation begins. Then it's translated into little pictures by uniquely talented storyboard
artists to make a visual blueprint of the film for easy reference. Storyboard artists are good at drawing emotion, creating mood, indicating camera moves and angles and they can often pitch an idea by playing all the parts and explaining the technical bits.  Storyboarding, conceived by Walt Disney for the short film Steamboat Willie in 1927, is invaluable for showing producers and crew how the film will look and has become part of live-action feature film-making. It’s a shame the public never gets to see a storyboard pitcher in action. 
    Using storyboard sketches, highly specialized layout artists then make bigger and more precise drawings of the backgrounds, the rooms, furniture, houses, streets, buildings and landscapes where the characters will enact the story.

The layout is then passed on to the background department where artists paint or color the layout drawing. Background art is often long, or odd-shaped, to accommodate pans and other camera movements. 

       Background art painted by Disney artist Gustaf Tenggren for Pinocchio.

    At the same time, characters are being developed and designed, their hairstyles, wardrobe, personalities and motivations carefully researched. An animator gets a copy of the storyboard and the layout, so s/he can see how the scene fits into the film and where the character(s) must move and on screen and what size they should be in relation to the furniture.  Since a pencil line can't act, neither can a nurb or a spline, it’s the animator who has to do the acting for the character. Animators take acting classes so their characters will behave believably. They choose the body language, the way the limbs, clothes and hair will move, as well as the expressions and mouth movements that must match the previously recorded dialogue. 

    Animation is the most complex part of an animated film, involving art, sound, physics, kinetics, dance, volume, perspective, wardrobe, coiffure, makeup, acting, arcane animation rules and deadlines: daily, weekly and the ultimate deadline, the film’s release date which can’t be changed. And, since there’s still a lot of work to do after animation: coloring the individual frames, photographing them against the backgrounds, editing, music, getting the film to theatres, distributing posters, commercials, merchandising, the animators always bear the brunt of the pressure to finish on time because the writers, designers, directors and producers have already taken up so much time refining the script and designs before animation can even start.
    All these departments require many artists, which means that for six months during crunch time, volatile artists are under a great deal of pressure and stress, resulting not only in art, but
pranks, tears, tension, jealousy, conflict, exhaustion and drama.
Excellent protagonists in a perfect environment for fiction, don’t you think?

 Warner Bos. background for a Roadrunner cartoon.