DNA Podcast 46 – Interview with Larry Houston

XMen05

In this episode, Don and Rob sit down with Larry Houston, storyboard artist and animation producer, to talk about his history in animation and work on X-men: The Animated Series. The trio discuss how Larry broke into the animation industry back in the 1980’s, what  it was like to work with Stan Lee, and his techniques for sneaking things past the TV censors.  All this, and how Larry ended up creating the coolest openings in TV animation history, and waiting for you in this episode of the Department of Nerdly Affairs.

What Writers can learn from Animators and Comic Artists

Recently I did a post looking at the ideas of a writing guru called Eric Edson where   among other things he made the statement that characters in movies only have four emotional states- Mad, Sad, Glad, and Scared. Edson’s view was that these are the most common emotions used in film because they’re the most visual ones and easiest for the audience to understand.

In the discussion that followed in the comments, my friend Don pointed out that there are many other visual emotions that appear on film, and that there is even a whole profession which spends a great deal of time studying human facial expression and body language- animators!

So, this sent me on a little research jaunt to see what I could find, since I have over the years regularly seen animators and comic artists do up sheets of standard expressions and emotional states for characters. What I found was the 25 Essential Expressions Challenge sheet by Nancy Lorenz.

25_essential_expressions_by_red

This sheet has been used since its release by multitudes of artists to explore how their characters express emotional states, and prepare their casts before going into production. So clearly, Edson was a little off, there are more emotional states that can appear on camera than just four, although in fairness to Edson a lot of them are variants of the core four he mentions with different levels of intensity involved. It’s also missing some emotional states like “curious”, so the list is hardly complete.

The point here is that writers could also use this approach to not only think about how each of their unique characters express these emotions, but also to think about which emotional state their characters will enter scenes with and which they will leave with, which are usually not the same ones. Each scene should have consequences, and those consequences are usually reflected in the change of emotional states of the characters involved. Controlling the shifting emotional states of the main characters is one of the things which gives stories a sense of flow, and creates an emotional journey for the audience to go on with the characters.

Also, while I was hunting for the emotions expressions sheets, I came across a few others that writers might find useful as well. Animators and Comic Artists spend a lot of time thinking about body language, which is an area where many Writers are often a bit weak since they’re not visual thinkers. You will constantly see writers having their characters only do just the most basic of body language gestures because they really don’t know any more or how to present it to the audience. Many writers get away with this or find ways around it, but like most things in writing the more elements you have control over the better you can express your story’s key ideas.

One of these is the Body Language Meme, which was meant to be an expanded full body version of the Facial Expressions challenge by Deviantart User ReincarnatedParano, which you can see in action below:

body_language_meme___envy__by_endling-d4zaey1

 

Then there is the 25 Smiles Challenge by Zerinity, which gets much more specific about the types of smiles characters use.

expressionslucasflat_by_blackdahlia-daidqtt

 

So, as you can see, there’s a lot more body language out there than smiles and nods, and having a good repertoire of ways to express your characters emotions besides through dialog can only make you a better writer. They say somewhere between 50% and 80% of human communication is non-verbal, so the better you get at using non-verbal cues in your writing, the better you’ll be able to express your ideas and enthrall your audience.

By the way, if you’re not sure how to employ the above, you might find these Cheat Sheets for Writing Body Language by Amanda Patterson (no relation) to be useful. 🙂

Rob

P.S. Click on the sheet creator’s names to go to the blank original sheets, and the sample images to go to the pages of the sample artists.

 

DNA Podcast 036 – Interview with Will Meugniot

meugniot_will_1984

In this episode, Rob and Don are joined by comic artist and animation director and producer Will Meugniot to talk about Will’s long history in the comics and animation industry. In this deep exploration of the animation industry of the 80’s and 90’s, they discuss the DNAgents, Will’s role as showrunner for X-Men the Animated Series and Exo-Squad, and so much more! All this, and how Urusei Yatsura shaped JEM and the Holograms is here for you in the 36th episode of the Department of Nerdly Affairs.

The point where Anime and North American Animation Diverged

Earlier this week, I was having an email exchange with my DNA co-host Don and our frequent esteemed guest Jack Ward about anime and American animation. As part of that conversation, Don took it upon himself to write up a long blog post explaining to Jack how the two animation industries diverged from each other during the 1960’s with lots of examples thrown in. Since I thought that such effort was worth sharing, Don graciously edited it and sent it to me to share.

Enjoy!

Rob


So, we were having a discussion the other day and this came up:
>Aha! So Anime is akin to sixties animation in North America!
   And the truth is, sort of. N. American and Japanese animation parallel each other for a while, but split a few times along the path. The Japanese were always enamoured of Hollywood animation, notably Disney. Here we had Hanna Barbera develop the “limited animation” style, which made animation inexpensive enough for television. That style set the standard, and tv and for a long time was the ONLY way to do a show.  So…. back in the early days you get:



Stirring. And across the sea:



   You probably notice a lot of similarity in technique. TV animation was pretty new and there weren’t a lot of shortcuts and techniques available yet, so it tends to look cheap. Our stuff was all “staged;” that is, filmed like you’d film a stage play…. everything moving along a single plane. The Japanese used a lot more wide shots than us, as well as making attempts to induce depth to their tv animation. (That’s one of the reasons you see so many shots of things moving diagonally in Japanese shows, whereas ours usually have stuff move left to right, in profile.)
   I think this is in no small part due to the popularity of early theatrical animation in Japan; they were a lot less willing to sacrifice visuals than us. Even in the earliest shows the Japanese still use a lot of establishing shots and panoramic views. There’s also a tendency to write more detailed stories than us. We did a lot of one-off gags, whereas the Japanese were creating continuing stories right from the get go. Another holdover from the theatrical features maybe?
   These differences in conceptualization create one of the first big forks in the road between N. America and Japan.
Jump ahead a decade or so and you get:



  Drugs. You get drugs. Anyhoo, in Japan:



   I think more things should be called “Gowapper.” Anyhoo; you can already see a separation of sensibilities, although them AND us were still experimenting. The Japanese were WAY more willing to do straight up drama, whereas we ran screaming in terror from any serious story. Even our action stuff was really…. sterile. This gets to be important in a few years. The Japanese made a jump from “cartoons is just fer kids” to “animation is just another way of doing tv” that we never quite make. We come close, but there’s a lot of inertia to oppose. During the 70’s the Japanese were starting to do animated dramas, soap operas, comedies, SO MANY giant robots….
   By the 80’s in America you had a weird peak:
[Rob Note- while the designs and origins are American, the first four shows listed here were mostly Animated in Japan, and these are Japanese-made intros.]






   Mmmmm…. violence…. Fuck the Smurfs. Anyways; there’s a lot of high quality stuff there, mostly ‘cos the Japanese companies worked cheap, and where in the midst of a big animation boom. Even so, we were starting to sink some cash into the product. There’s a lot of technical quality. It didn’t last ‘cos animation is REAL expensive, and our studios turned to marketing tie-ins to cover the cost. So cartoons became half hour toy ads for the most part.
   Across the sea:



   Looks the same, doubtless ‘cos a lot of it was done by the same studios. The biggest difference was that the shows were leading the merch in japan; the cartoons would be made AS CARTOONS, and any tie-ins would come later.
   By the end of the 80’s; going into the 90’s animation was taking a dip, and moved towards the cheap. Especially here:




   Japan did something weird; since they had a more demanding audience they couldn’t lower quality too much (although they tried) so they just kept doing whatever worked, over and over and over…. So you get a lot of shows that LOOK nice, but are WAY boring:

Okay…. that’s a cheat….




   More recently you’ve been getting a mix of decent stuff and crap; although Japan is way more willing to sink a few bucks into their animation. Part of the solution/problem was South Park, which showed that you COULD do animation for an older audience, but set the standard that said animation must be as cheap and vulgar as possible.
   Still; in the years since we’ve done some good stuff:




   We tend to make up for funds with style…. a-la Batman:TAS. When it works, it works. When it doesn’t…. well….
   Japan still goes the technical route:




Holee Smokes, why can’t we have nice things like that? Japan isn’t afraid to get weird though:

   So to answer the question that started this; 60’s Japanese animation is akin to 60’s N. American animation, but thereafter things take some odd turns. As a result, animation in Japan gains general acceptance WAY earlier than it did here, and that allowed Japan to produce a greater variety of material and to achieve a level of technical skill we haven’t quite hit yet.
Don C.

DNA Podcast 032 – Voice Acting with Kimlinh Tran

kimlinh-characters

In this episode, Rob and Don explore the possibilities of sound by talking with voice actress Kimlinh Tran about her experiences and perspectives gained voice acting in anime and video games. They talk about her efforts to improve her craft, why being near entertainment production centers is a must, and why recording walla is so much fun. All this, and why having a voice acting safe word is a must, are waiting for you in this episode of the Department of Nerdly Affairs.

DNA Podcast 019 – Ghosts of Saturday Mornings Past

Crusader Rabbit

In this episode, Don and Rob discuss North American TV animation, tracing it from its roots in the 1950s to the rise of Saturday morning television and its eventual evolution in the age of Netflix. Along the way, they spend time with Huckleberry Hound, The Flintstones, Josie the Pussycats, the Micronauts, and Goober and the Ghost Chasers. All this, and why Fred and Barney sold cigarettes on air is waiting for you in this, the 19th episode of the Department of Nerdly Affairs.

Volton: Legendary Defender Review (Very Lite Spoilers)

I just finished watching the first season of Netflix and Dreamworks’ new attempt at rebooting Voltron, and I have to say I was impressed. This is no surprise, since the people behind the reboot are the same team and studio behind Avatar: The Legend of Korra, and they bring their trademark style of character, action, and humor to the project. So what did I like and didn’t I like?

Likes

  • The animation is beautiful, and they’re not afraid to mix different styles together and do tricks like dropping to black and white line drawing at certain dramatic scenes. They’re very in control of the medium, and even though we’re looking at a mix of CGI and 2D animation, it all blends very nicely.
  • The story is overall well written, and while it starts a little rushed it picks up quite well as it goes along. While each episode stands on its own, there is a clear overall story and progression, and they deftly avoid falling into the “Voltron fights monster of the week” trap. (In fact, I was shocked by how few monster battles there actually are.)
  • The monster battles that happen are extremely well thought out and well choreographed, not “fight>fight>fight>blazing sword>end” but requiring the characters to think each monster through as a problem, not just as an obstacle to their goals. (Which makes the monsters more scary and actually intimidating.)
  • They made Hunk, Lance, and Pidge into distinctive (and very loveable) characters who all have a purpose in the story and aren’t just sidekicks.
  • They’ve expanded Zarkon’s forces into an actual race, The Galra, and treat them like an actual military force and even gave them bits of their own language.
  • The shift towards an active role for the team instead of passively sitting there waiting for the next monster to attack.

Undecided

    • The original Voltron used Keith as it’s core anchor, and then slowly expanded on the rest of the cast as it went on. (It was following the formula set up by Gatchaman (aka Battle of the Planets/G-Force) and which is still used in Sentai today, where the Red Ranger is always the default hero/leader.) This new series is all ensemble, all the time, with no clear focal character except a character that the episode might choose to focus on. While this works okay, I found this results in the Hunk/Lance/Pidge trio getting the majority of lines and screen time, while the actual more heroic warrior characters of Keith and Shiro kinda get shafted in terms of story focus. Keith and Shiro start the season as enigmas, and pretty much end there too, in fact Keith is now reduced to being just another skilled but generic pilot, and a boring one. (Imagine a Legend of Korra where they spent 75% of their time on Mako and Bolin instead of Korra, and Korra just turns up to fight.) I’m hoping this is because Keith is now on a slow-burn towards hero-dom and it will be remedied in the following seasons.
    • The new Voltron design is okay, not great, not bad.
    • Every time they form Voltron, I keep having GaoGaiGar flashbacks, because the new Voltron combining sequence is a total GaoGaiGar “homage”. Watch…

Forming Voltron (however, this is the shorter version, there is a longer version which is even more like GaoGaiGar’s Final Fusion)

GaoGaiGar’s Final Fusion sequence for comparison.

Dislikes

  • I’m oldschool this way, but to me Voltron isn’t Voltron without this theme! (Which I’ve been humming since my childhood.) Instead we get a bunch of really lackluster synth music that’s functional but nothing exceptional.

Overall, it’s a very well done show, and in some ways is superior to the original. It kind’ve reminds me of the Thundercats reboot they did a few years back, although that show had a little more depth to it. This new Voltron series is just a simple and fun retelling of the original Voltron story, and I look forward to seeing where they go with it.

Rob

P.S. Here’s your useless Trivia of the day! The original Voltron series wasn’t supposed to be translated from Beast King Golion at all. It was supposed to be translated from another series called Daltanius, which also featured a robot with a lion component. However, during pre-production World Events Productions asked their Japanese partner to send them tapes of “the one with the lion” and Toei Animation accidentally sent tapes of Golion instead! WEP liked Golion so much they decided to translate it instead!

And now you know…the rest of the story.

Kung Fu Cooking Girls

Your dose of Kung Fu action, served with a side order of fun! This short animated film was made to order for a dull Monday morning! Enjoy!

Young Justice Ends

I just watched the series finale for Young Justice today, and I have to say it ended like it began- with a resounding thud!

I found the very first episode of this series clunky and a little dull, and this finale was pretty much the same- it was supposed to be cool and epic, but instead it came across as rushed and kinda forced. The cool finale was really Episode 2×19- The Summit, and this episode was just 20 minutes of housecleaning that felt like a really forced attempt to bring together all the plotlines this awkward and uneven season had been scattering about.

Season One started so-so, but got better fast and ended strong, Season Two started oddly, got better, and worse, and then really cool for a few episodes before finally it came to its natural but awkward conclusion.

I keep using the word “awkward” because I don’t think there’s a better word to describe this season of the show. Too many new characters, and not enough time to focus on the old characters or the new, so the whole thing just turned into a mess at times. In fact, the only time the show really worked was when it reverted back to the Season One cast and focussed on what they were doing. Most of the new cast, with the exceptions of Blue Beetle (who they were pushing really really hard during the second half) and Impulse were pretty much cyphers, and then on top of that they added another team of young heroes to an already overstuffed season- just because.

I don’t know if they were driven by the toy makers to pack the show with action figures, or just couldn’t wait to expand the team and decided they wanted to get as many cool characters in there as possible. Either way, they messed up what had been a solidly good alternate take on the DC Universe with great continuity and some really good character development in the first season. These characters really felt alive and unique, and the whole story felt more organic than forced. (With a few exceptions, like this week’s finale.)

When it first started, I worried that the show would fail the logic test because each week the characters would be in situations where the “real” heroes should be dropping in to help them but didn’t because the plot called for it. With a single exception (the one with the Injustice League from Season One), the writers did a great job of avoiding that trap, and these never felt like “sidekicks” but actual young heroes in training. The senior heroes did show up, but didn’t overshadow the team except when it made sense for them to, and they felt like mentors instead of guardians.

Actually, the show Young Justice most reminded me of was Naruto, and I’m positive that Naruto was indeed a huge influence on the production end of the show. Robin even does Naruto’s signature clone-jutsu move during one of the episodes near the end of Season One (with a little help from Zatana). The whole feeling of the show, with the young heroes going out on missions assigned them by the senior heroes, who were still there and active in the background, really made me think of Naruto, and if they’re going to borrow, then I think they picked the perfect show to borrow from.

The problem is that while they borrowed Naruto’s style and some of its story structure, they forgot one important element- a central character. No matter how scattered or epic Naruto became, it was always still about Naruto growing and developing as a Ninja, and even if that show wandered off to follow side-characters doing things it was still anchored around him. Even in Season One, Young Justice had a problem with focus, and I always found the team a little bit dull because of it. It kind’ve worked when they concentrated on the personal problems each of them had, but they never really got deeply enough into any of them for my tastes and those problems were all resolved in the Season One finale.

Then, when they hit Season Two, that whole problem exploded like a grenade. Suddenly we were overwhelmed by characters and events, and a show which could be a little unfocused became a mess of people we didn’t know or care about. The action was good, the storylines usually interesting, and the animation high quality, but the show’s heart was missing. What depth it had before now gone under a tide of events not really related to any one character.

Just like the show’s finale.

Yesterday, I thought it was a shame this show got cancelled due to low ratings (among key demographics) and poor toy sales. Today, I’m okay with it ending. It was a fun show that I enjoyed while it was around and might re watch someday (well, Season One), but its time is done.

Thanks to the writers and producers of the show, it was fun while it lasted!

Rob

Do American Comics still mean Superhero Comics?

My friend Don C. proposed an interesting theory to me last night when we were talking, he said that in his educated opinion (and he does know a lot about comics) the age of the Superhero Comic in North America was finished. That while there are still Superhero comics being sold, their future is as limited as their sales. (In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, Marvel Comics were selling close to a million copies per title for their top tier, now they sell close to a million comics for their entire lineups!)

His thesis is that although it hasn’t become clear yet, Manga won. Not just in terms of sales, but in terms of being the comic form that captured the imaginations of the next generation of readers and creators. He sees superhero comics are largely running on inertia and nostalgia, and thinks that while they won’t disappear, that superhero comics will be a smaller and smaller piece of the North American comics landscape.

Now, this doesn’t mean all comics will become Manga, or even manga-wannabes (although the market does have a fair amount of both), but it does mean that a generation that sees comics as an open art form that can tell many different kinds of stories is now rising up. I myself agreed with this thesis when I thought about the current webcomics market. Those are the next generation of comic creators, and they’re producing slice of life, comedy, romance, drama, fantasy, sci-fi, and a whole lot of stuff that doesn’t fit into any one genre, but they’re not producing much in the way of superhero books.

Right now, part of the reason we’re seeing so much in the way of superhero movies is because the current generation (my generation) grew up in the great Bronze Age revival of Superheroes in the 70s and 80s. They’re the ones ruling the Hollywood roost, and they’re drawing from their formative reading years in what they’re producing. The upcoming generation grew up on Harry Potter and Manga, so what will they produce when they rule in the roost in 10 to 15? And will Superheroes still hold a place in that world?

While I love superheroes, I have to admit that for a long time I think they’ve been the thing holding back Comics as an art form in North America. Only superhero books seemed to sell, so that’s mostly what got produced, and people came to associate comics with superheros so tightly that I think it was hard to differentiate the two. Given that superhero books are inherently 14 year old power fantasies, it’s been hard for comics to break out of the ghetto society has placed them in. It will only be when we break the comic=superhero link that the art form of Comic Books will truly flourish and they will become an accepted medium in society as a whole.

As Don suggested, that may have already happened. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Rob