Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Why the Emmys Don't Care About Animation

In case you missed it, the 64th Primetime Emmy Awards were Sunday night.  Before I narrowed my focus to animation, I used to really get into the Emmys.  I watch my fair share of TV, so I enjoyed whether or not my personal tastes coincided with the awards. The last few years however, I've started to see that I don't really care anymore.  It's not just because a handful of shows usually end up sweeping the categories (and at least one or two of them are always from either HBO or some BBC production), it's because I realized the state of animation at these awards.

If you watch the ceremony to see which of your favorite animated programs will win awards, don't waste your time.  Animated categories are relegated to the less prestigious Creative Arts Emmys.  Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of hard working technical people who deserve recognition, but animation deserves more respect than to be lumped in with makeup artists and  camera operators.  In case you're curious, Outstanding Animated Program went to The Penguins of Madagascar, Outstanding Short-Format Animated Program went to Regular Show, and Outstanding Voice-Over Performance went to Maurice LaMarche for his work on Futurama.  Aside from the last one there, I'm less than impressed.

Animated programs are a major force on television.  Fox's "Animation Domination" block is a major draw on Sunday nights.  Seth MacFarlane is one of the biggest names in the industry right now, but if he wants to win a televised award, he would have to submit Family Guy into the general Best Comedy category.  It's been done, but the animated contender always gets trounced by the "30 Rock" and "Modern Family" establishment.  The Simpsons has been on for 23 years and has not won any sort of award outside of the standard animated and musical categories.  There have been times where it was literally the best thing on TV, but no properly prestigious awards were given.

My thoughts exactly, Homer.

Just last week I mentioned that veteran voice actor June Foray had finally been awarded an Emmy, but even that was a Daytime Emmy for a part she played on The Garfield Show.  While she certainly deserves the recognition for a lifetime of wonderful performances, I'm flummoxed that it took Garfield to attain it.

The condescending stance of the Academy is maybe best illustrated by an incident that occurred when this year's nominations were announced earlier this summer.  The NBC series Commmunity submitted an episode that had been animated as an old-school 8-bit video game homage for consideration in the various animated categories.  This prompted a protest by 52 writers, directors, and producers of full-time animated programs, including Seth MacFarlane, Matt Groening, and David X. Cohen.  Trey Parker and Matt Stone were conspicuously absent, but given their history of saying "Screw You!" to the Hollywood establishment, it's not surprising.  The response from the Academy effectively said that non-animated shows can submit to the categories because they are treated as a, "special episode," and separate from the rest of the series.  Animated writers, directors, and producers are welcome to submit to other stand-alone categories, but they would have to suffer the slings and arrows of a group that has little regard or respect for animation.

Why does the simple fact that a program is animated mean that it must be subjected to such harsh double standards?  Over time, critics and audiences have consistently shown that animated shows are beloved, so why not give them a square shake?  I think the answer lies with the embedded establishment of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.  Despite the fact that primetime animation has been around since the 60's, it still seems to be regarded as cartoonish kids' stuff and not on the same level as other non-animated programming.  Maybe one or two more new smash-hit shows might change their way of thinking, but if The Simpsons or Family Guy can't do it, then I'm not holding my breath.  At least there are the Annie Awards thrown by ASIFA (Association Internationale du Film d'Animation) to give animated shows and films the recognition they deserve.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Two Big Milestones for Two Big Names in Animation

This week I'm giving a special two-for-one post.  Two big names in animation and voice acting:  one a current leader in prime time animation entertainment, and the other a legend that I almost feel bad including with the former.

First off is Seth MacFarlane's role as host on Saturday Night Live last weekend for their season opener.  It's neat in terms of animation landmarks because it was the first time that an animator has hosted the show.  I can't really imagine Walt Disney or Matt Groening doing such a thing, and I list those two because they are probably the only other animation producers that most people can name.  This really is a testament to the level of celebrity that MacFarlane has generated for himself.  Granted, I am not his biggest fan.  Family Guy has disappeared up its own rear end to become one giant meta joke and The Cleveland Show still struggles along, but  America Dad  continues to stay strong (and structured! *gasp*) and Ted  was surprisingly funny  with all of its crude jokes and Flash Gordon references.  I also am not thrilled that the shoddy animation and often lazy writing has become the face of modern animation.  Ralph Bakshi has more talent in his beard hair as far as I'm concerned, but regardless, the man has done an excellent job branding himself in a way that few animators do.

As for SNL itself, it was enjoyable enough.  Both the host and the show are loved for their quick pace, copious pop culture references, and questionable material that is sure to turn off some viewers.  In this way MacFarlane is an ideal host, although I did feel like his vocal range was not maximized to its fullest potential (barring his enjoyable, if self-promoting, opening monologue).  It was also nice to see him in a role where he wasn't calling all of the shots.  I'm sure the appearance will do plenty to build enthusiasm for the season premiere of all of his shows.

Secondly, today is June Foray's 95th birthday.  The First Lady of Voice Acting has provided some of the most memorable characters in animation history.  Her list of credits is far too long to include here, including virtually every major cartoon studio since the 40's, but some of my favorites include Witch Hazel from various Looney Tunes shorts, the Talky Tina doll from an episode of The Twilight Zone, and Natasha Fatale and Rocket J. "Rocky" Squirrel on The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.  In a career that has spanned more than six decades and still shows no signs of stopping, she has shown a passion for animation that is truly admirable.

The range and strength of her voice have led many to call her the female Mel Blanc, but as Chuck Jones once supposedly said, "June Foray is not the female Mel Blanc, Mel Blanc is the male June Foray."  Earlier this year, Foray was finally formally recognized when she was nominated and won her first Emmy award.  Even though it was for a role on The Garfield Show, for lifelong fans, it served as a thank you for all of the years of wonderful characters and unforgettable voices.  She is a truly remarkable person and I wish her the best of birthdays! 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

"6 Days to Air" Shows How "South Park" Stays Fresh

Just the other day I found 6 Days to Air: The Making of South Park on Netflix and gave it a watch.  I knew that South Park Studios produced episodes in only a week, but I hadn't realized how intense the process actually is until now.  It is truly a wonder to watch.

The documentary primarily follows creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone as they script, record, animate, and air an episode of South Park in only six days.  It is an ambitious schedule that is unlike any other animated show on television right now.  Other shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy take months to create and are shipped overseas to countries like South Korea for the actual animation.  In contrast, everything for South Park is done in house at South Park Studios in Los Angeles.  The result is a form of current events satire that is virtually unheard of in commercial animation.  A news story can break on Tuesday and it can be in the new episode that airs less than 24 hours later.  I'm simply fascinated with that degree of relevance in an industry where staying that up-to-date is virtually impossible.

It also gave insight into the relationship between Parker and Stone.  Often, the image seems to be that Parker is the bigger "face" of the series and does much of the writing and directing.  Stone has often been labeled the "Garfunkel" of the duo, but I don't really see it that way.  For one, the documentary indicates that Matt is much better at the PR side of things and helps prevent Trey from spinning off too far into his own inherent weirdness.  While he does provide many voices for characters, Matt seems to be more in a producer role rather than writer or director, although he is always present in the writers' room to act as a sounding board for jokes.  It's a fascinating dynamic, and one that works and works well.

I also gained a realization as to the evolution both of the show itself and Parker and Stone.  Back when South Park premiered, it was groundbreaking for its content and how far it was willing to push taste and what was acceptable to air on television.  Now, it is the standard by which all other "crude" animated shows are judged.  Even though copious swearing and poop jokes are still its trademark, it remains fresh and willing to go after any topic without fear.  The rabid First Amendment fan in me still squeals with delight to see the juxtaposition of discussing issues related to terrorism and freedom of speech with queefing and world-record setting craps.  Perhaps my favorite moment in the entire 42 minute documentary was Executive Producer Anne Garefino on the phone with Comedy Central Standards & Practices regarding the content of the episode in production, "HumancentiPad":

"We're not going to see feces in the iteration that I've seen so far, but, I don't know what's going to happen at the end yet.  We haven't written the end.  Maybe...yes...maybe we see them being sewn together.  Yeah...thanks...Happy Easter to you too."

Matt and Trey are a fascinating duo to watch.  They've gone from dressing in drag and dropping acid at the Oscars to writing and producing a smash hit Broadway musical, The Book of Mormon, that has received accolade after accolade.  Yet even though they're now in their 40's, they still appear to be the same pair of young guys who just don't give a damn about pissing people off.  Because of their intimate control over the production of South Park, it is hard to imagine the show being able to continue without one or both of them.  I could see Matt Groening or Seth MacFarlane completely taking their hands off of their shows and their legions of writers could keep the machine running (voice acting not withstanding in the case of Mr. MacFarlane), but that's not the case with Matt and Trey.  After seeing the emotion and the turmoil that goes into creating each episode of the show, I kind of worry for their health/sanity and wonder how much longer they can keep up this pace.  I hope it is still for a while, because despite its age, South Park continues to stay fresh and very rarely has it made an episode that is a flat-out disappointment.  After seeing 6 Days to Air, I definitely will keep my mouth shut the next time I feel like being overly critical, if that ever happens.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

VFX Company Shows How NOT To Do Business

Well, I'm a year older, so now it's time for a more serious post.  In case you haven't been following it, Digital Domain is a digital effects company that has a long track record with providing digital special effects for films.  More recently however, the company has been in the spotlight regarding some controversial new actions to further the company's growth.  I won't go super in-depth into the issue because there are plenty of people more qualified than me who have been investigating for months, but here is the gist of the problem:

Digital Domain recently opened a new studio in Port St. Lucie, FL in an effort to try and break into the animated feature film game.  Possibly fueled by the success of Rango by LucasArts, they decided that it's time they tried to get a piece of the pie that only a few major animation studios have enjoyed.  For their first film, they settled on a, "family film," titled The Legend of Tembo starring a young African Elephant who is captured and taken to India.

The problem is the method of how the studio plans on making the film.  Using Florida state funds, they have created an in-studio education program where upper class animation students pay to work on projects like The Legend of Tembo.  Oh yeah, and they won't be paid for their work.  Here is a direct quote from Digital Domain CEO John Textor:

Classes starting in the education space, what’s interesting is the relationship between the digital studio and the college. Not only is this a first in a number of ways that we’ve talked about, but 30% of the workforce at our digital studio down in Florida, is not only going to be free, with student labor, it’s going to be labor that’s actually paying us for the privilege of working on our films.

Thirty percent of the workforce would be unpaid!  People like Amid Amidi have been covering the gross abuses of unpaid internship programs in the animation industry for a while now, but this takes the cake.  Textor has since gone on and tried to backpeddle, but it sounds more like he's just trying to spin the situation in his favor rather than actually apologizing or trying to change the program. 

The more John Textor is investigated, the worse he looks.  He has a 24% stake in Digital Domain, but the loan used to buy those shares was provided by Palm Beach Capital, the company's largest shareholder.  DD stock has fallen 75% in the last four months and now Textor is talking about buying the company to keep it afloat.  Putting yourself further in debt to buy the company to which you are already indebted doesn't exactly sound like a solid business model.  Then again, this is the same man who believes that DD can expand rapidly by attempting to, "tie up the real estate," of creating virtual performers like the Tupac "hologram" that DD made for Coachella back in April.  Never mind that the gimmick itself is an old one and there are plenty of VFX companies that are capable of achieving similar results.

If this is how he chooses to dress as a pirate, surely you can trust him 
to run a multi-million dollar company

This subject is close to my heart because these for-profit animation programs are rife with questionable behavior and only make life harder for VFX artists who are already treated like crap compared to other artists involved in film making.  Digital Domain and John Textor have been getting a lot of heat lately over this, and hopefully the attention will change things for the better.  I don't want to see all the artists who have worked so hard on Tembo and other projects end up out of a job, but I certainly wouldn't mind someone showing John Textor the door and letting someone who knows and cares about the business of animation take over the company, if there is still one to save when all is said and done.

Update: Cartoon Brew posted a story late last night detailing Digital Domain's default on a $35 million loan, plus another $16 million in interest and penalties, plus an additional 32% drop in stock price.  Click the link and watch the embedded news story where John Textor tries to claim that $51 million isn't a lot of money.

Update #2 (09/07): It has been announced that Digital Domain is shuttering its Port St. Lucie studio, laying off 300 employees and shutting down production on The Legend of Tembo.  Furthermore, John Textor has resigned as CEO, handing control over to DD Executive Ed Ulbrich.  A sad day for all of the artists who were victims of this debacle. TCPalm.com has more coverage and interviews with some of the laid off workers if you want to read more.

For more information about the state of the VFX industry check out the VFX Soldier blog and head over to Defending Axl Rose to read my guest column on using animation to bring dead celebrities back to life.