Two weeks of Student Posts of the Week…

Due to a whole set of unforeseen circumstances, I didn’t post Student Posts of the Week for the week of the fifteenth, so I’m making up for that by hitting two weeks at once.

As always, I’m not able to highlight all the blog posts I felt were particularly good or interesting– there’s just far too many of them. What you have here, then, is a selection from two weeks’ worth of solid student work… With extremely brief commentary from me.

Kristina Wade gives us a very nice introduction to WWII propaganda cartoons– Education for Death and Der Fuerher’s Face are two classics that no student of 20th century history should miss, and it was especially instructive to compare them to the Soviet anti-Nazi propaganda cartoon she included.

Andrew Steward presents us with a fascinating peek at what could well be the first crossover of animated characters from (very) different continuities, with a cartoon that combines two of the Fleisher Brothers’ most popular properties– Superman and Popeye. An unlikely but entertaining pairing, even if it’s not one of the best Fleisher Popeye cartoons out there.

Justin Pangilinan blogs about a topic that touches on concepts of international intellectual property, fair use, digital “piracy,” and fandom– some of my favorite topics– in his discussion of fan-subtitled (“fansubbed”) anime.

Elliot Meek discusses The Snowman as an example of a longer-form silent cartoon… I hadn’t seen this cartoon since I was a kid, and I’d forgotten how much I loved the art when I was little. It’s a little treacly now, but it holds up as an interesting cartoon. Definitely not as good an example of long-form silent animation as the first forty five minutes of Wall-E, but at the same time, this one ends before you get the ridiculous weird fat humans in hoverchairs and the HAL-9000 rip-off baddie.

Samitra Denardo gives us an excellent introduction to John Sutherland’s industrial animations, including Rhapsody of Steel, which is another can’t-miss piece of animation…definitely worth checking out.

James Benjamin Davis blogged about the recent feature 9 that touches on something that I wish more students would explore in their blogs– the assumption that just because a film is animated, it’s aimed at an audience of children. Seems to have started up a bit of a discussion, too.

Finally, two really fascinating posts about Pixar: Scott Bell made me think about the way Pixar makes movies by pointing out something I’d never really thought about: Pixar movies are almost all “about” one animation problem– Monsters, Inc. is essentially a movie about hair, for example. Jeannie Hilleary discusses the Easter Eggs that Pixar animators have left in their movies. Pixar plans their projects so far in advance that you can actually spot Wall-E in Toy Story.


Pacing over time

Watching Gertie the Dinosaur in History of Animation got me thinking about pacing, especially after one student post about the relative “interestingness” of Windsor McCay’s The Sinking of the Lusitania and James Cameron’s Titanic.

It’s not a really shocking revelation to say that the pacing of animation has gotten more and more rapid over the last 100 years. Cuts have gotten quicker, scenes shorter, exposition has gone from painstaking (and painful) to nonexistent.

But the extent to which this is true becomes quite striking when you look at the change over time of a single, specific thing. I decided to look at the quickening of pacing in animation somewhere where you might not expect to find that much change– in breakfast cereal commercials.

A few examples tell the story better than I could ever hope to.

From 1939, a cartoon featuring the “Breakfast Pals”: Snap, Crackle, and Pop.

From some time in the 1960’s, an ad for Sugar Crisp Cerial (later renamed Super Golden Crisp.)

A pair of Fruity Pebbles ads, the first from the 70’s, and the second from the 80’s.

…I expected to find ads getting shorter, cuts getting quicker, exposition getting more minimal. But I was honestly shocked at the extent to which they did. From a minute and a half commercial, we move in a few decades to a fifteen second commercial. It’s a really amazing transformation, when you think about it.

Part of what happens is that audience expectations veer toward the rapid-fire approach. Simultaneously, audiences become used to the conventions of the genre– of animated cereal ads. These ads have a certain set of tropes, of conventions– there is a trickster, who wants the cereal, and there are those who try to keep the trickster from the cereal. The trickster utilizes subterfuge, misdirection, cartoon physics, or even violence to claim the cereal, proving that the product is so good that it requires extraordinary measures to attain it– so don’t be afraid to throw a fit if it makes your parents buy it. As audiences get used to the conventions, less explication is necessary.

The difference is striking, and it makes you think.


Taking the simple and making it sublime…

Because nothing encourages learning like actually doing, each student in HIST 389: the History of Animation is required to produce a short animation.

Now, a lot of students are probably going to want to do a zoetrope or another persistence-of-vision toy, because it seems like the most accessible, simple technique. There’s no software or camera concerns– it seems like something a kid could do:

But just because the basic principle is simple doesn’t mean that the application of the principle needs to be simplistic. The following film uses the basic zoetrope technology to create something really powerful and beautiful.

(Watch it in hi res for maximum effect.)


Animator Eric Dyer, of Baltimore, spent a period of time biking around the city of Copenhagen, shooting things he saw. He then took the images and built a series of zoetrope-type devices using them. Finally, he filmed the results.

Here’s what his set-up looked like:

I think the project is amazing, both just because it’s visually beautiful and moving, and because it is such a fascinating reinterpretation of an old technology. In the below interview he describes his next project as involving hand-painted objects designed on a computer and printed out using a 3-D printer, and finally animated using the zoetrope technique. It’s a fascinating idea that, if it’s executed as well as “The Copenhagen Cycles,” will likely be stunning to see.


Interactivity and Digital Storytelling…

NB– this is primarily cannibalized from a post I made on the class blog of the Digital Storytelling class I’m currently taking. I like to keep my stuff all in one place, though.

I have to admit that, while many of the examples of “digital storytelling projects” that my classmates posted to the class blog were quite interesting and well-done, and some where quite thought-provoking and evocative, they felt a little… old media?

Basically, they were just low-budget, one-person documentary shorts.

One of the really fascinating things about new media technology, however, is the interactivity of it. If you use the internet in 2010, you are almost certainly not just a media consumer. You are a producer. The most successful sites on the internet– from Youtube to Facebook to Twitter to Google itself– are not content creators. They are frameworks that host user-generated content, sort it, make it manageable, encourage discovery. From the moment Tim Berners-Lee began to conceptualize the World Wide Web as something interlaced, hypertextual, navigated by users, the web has challenged models of passive viewership. The web is interactive. New media is interactive.

So where’s the interactivity in digital storytelling? Well, it seems to be coming. Though it is still pretty primitive in its application.

A sidebar of sorts:

Is it still storytelling if it’s interactive? If the author relinquishes some degree of control to the audience, is it still his or her story?

I would argue that it absolutely is. While a was a voracious and omnivorous reader as a child, one of my sisters’ and my favorite series of books was Bantam’s Choose Your Own Adventure series. Essentially bound hypertext, the book would take a forking narrative format, where the reader was, at key moments, presented with choices. The reader’s choices determined the outcome, but the author’s vision remained at the center. Forked stories could fork back into themselves at time– especially in a time-travel story.

While most video games are admittedly thin on narrative, some of the best follow a similar course– allowing player decisions to influence the chain of events within several forked narrative outcomes.

That digression over, I have to say, I haven’t found exactly what I was looking for. I haven’t found any single example that illustrates well how exciting this possibility is. But let me run through a couple examples– all imperfect in some way– that illustrate what kind of thinking I’m talking about. All of these take advantage of Youtube’s fairly recent annotation feature.

“B-Boy Joker” is very well-implemented, though it’s more of a game than a story. Even by game standards, there’s not much narrative: The Joker and Batman are having a dance battle. You have to match your opponent’s moves or he will defeat you. Not really a story at all. But the action is compelling, the use of annotations is highly effective, and the stop-motion animation is top-notch. One could imagine making a project that was more narrative along similar lines.

logoSimilarly, “Youtube’s first weekly game show” Truth or Fail, is pretty lacking as a narrative, being more of a game. But while B-Boy Joker was more like a video game, Truth or Fail resembles a (highly eccentric) quiz show. Nevertheless, there is a beginning, middle, and end, and since many of us if not all of us are interested in the informative and pedagogical uses of digital storytelling, I thought it bore mentioning because it’s pretty easy to see how such a framework could be used educationally.

Finally, I found two more traditionally narrative interactive videos that unfortunately seem to be experiencing technical difficulties. Annnotations on some of the videos in these series seem to be broken, so clicking on the screen doesn’t always work. But go and check out The Time Machine: An Interactive Adventure and Choose Your Path: Find Sparta! and try to imagine them actually working.

At any rate, it seems obvious to me that interactivity is a pretty exciting possibility in digital storytelling. And that, unfortunately, we might not be quite there yet.


“You’re Gerald McBoing-Boing, the Noise-Making Boy!”

This semester, I have the rare opportunity to TA a class on something I actually study. For the most part, graduate TA work tends, at my school, to be limited to general, broad survey courses– Western Civ, or American History. I’ve TA’d both and enjoyed both, but this semester has me far more giddy– I’m TAing HIST 389: History of Animation.

Last week, I had the opportunity to give the introductory talk of the class on the first day. After trying to go through the syllabus, cover the basic questions, etc., I got to show a cartoon and discuss it. I chose 1951’s Gerald McBoing-Boing.

I’ve loved this cartoon for years, and when I saw it wasn’t on the syllabus, I knew I wanted to include it as the subject of my introductory talk. I think it worked pretty well…

I used “Gerald McBoing-Boing” to discuss two approaches that students might want to use to avoid “animation appreciation” style blog posts. You may have loved Snow White as a kid, and that’s great, but it’s of limited scholarly value to say that. So I tried to talk about how we can use “Gerald McBoing-Boing” to look at American history through animation, as well as to look at its place within the history of animation.

As a historical artifact, “Gerald” is a fascinating piece. Created right as the heat was turning up on the 20th century America’s second great Red Scare, this is a parable about conformity and the price paid by those who cannot fit in. While the company that produced it, UPA, was created after the Disney animators’ strike, and while the cartoon rejects the forced conformity that immigrants, gays, leftists, and others felt so strongly during the years of HUAC and McCarthy, it’s simultaneously distinctly not a socialist/communist picture. Gerald’s escape from the persecution of conformist America wasn’t a rejection of capitalism, but actually finding a place within capitalism. Once Gerald’s difference can be commodified, it is respected rather than rejected.

At the same time, it’s a great cartoon to use to discuss the history of animation itself. It’s a great early exemplar (and trend setter) of what some have described as the cartoon modern style of heavily design-oriented 50’s animation. Moreover, it was one of the first cartoons to gain attention for its use of limited animation. UPA cartoonists started using limited animation techniques in reaction to the regime of naturalism over at the House of Mouse, as an artistic decision. However, when the technique became more and more popular, it quickly became obvious that it was a faster, cheaper way to do animation. In this way, the look of the Hannah Barbara cartoons I grew up loving was very deeply influenced by this cartoon.

I picked “Gerald McBoing-Boing” for exactly the same “animation appreciation” reasons that I urged the students to avoid, and I copped to that: I mostly wanted to show this cartoon because it’s cute and it’s visually striking, and it has funny sound effects.

But once selected by those criteria, it’s necessary– and even rewarding– to slip on the “critical historical analysis” colored glasses, and see if they deepen the reading. In this case, it certainly did. Looking for an excuse to show this cartoon made me realize what a fascinating cartoon it really is.