Saturday, January 22, 2011

SATIN DOLL: Disney's First African American Princess

Just in time for Disney’s Snow White's 73rd Anniversary. Just in time for Black History month.

I was wondering if I should rename this blog: The Redemption of Coal Black and De Sebben Dwarfs.

In December of 1937 Walt Disney defines concept of the animated feature with: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

In 1943, after encouragement from Duke Ellington to make an all black musical animated cartoon, animation legend, Bob Clampett directs the infamous African-American parody: “Coal Black and De Sebben Dwarfs". Despite grossly racially offensive gags it is considered an animation masterpiece. Either way, it's widely regarded today as a animated dictionary of racial stereotypes of African Americans.

Merrie Melodies "Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs" (1943)
アップロード者 100X. - 全シーズン、全エピソードをオンラインで。

In Clampett’s defense I doubt there was malice in his intention. In 1943 all ethnic groups (blacks, Asians, Jews, Native Americans, Irish, take your pick) were savagely satirized and caricaturized. Also the fact Ruby and Vivian Dandridge (mother and sister to Dorothy Dandridge respectively) supplied voice talent to the cartoon, possibly implies the cartoon (though sophomoric) probably was not meant to wound.

In 1946 Duke Ellington’s all black musical idea resurfaces again as “Cole Black and the Seven Dwarfs”. This time as a Broadway parody produced in partnership with none other than Disney. The musical was never produced but development for the production went as far with a book and lyrics written by Disney storymen, T. (Thornton) Hee and William Cottrell AND concept designs (sets and costumes) by none other than Mary Blair.

In stark contrast, and still a parody Cole Black on the surface looks like something pointing in the direction of “good taste” and "class" with a Harlem Renaissance sensibility present.

Apparently the production started in development as early as 1946 and went as far as 1955 when a full script was developed. However by this time Cole Black and the Seven Dwarfs was renamed “Satin Doll and the Seven Little Men”.

Was the name change politically correct move? Probably not. Was it Duke's idea? Who knows. The Disney Broadway musical was never produced. Four of Duke Ellington’s songs have survived the development limbo: “I Could Get a Man”, “It’s Love I’m In” , “Once Upon A Dream” and the title song “Satin Doll” which was released in 1953.

“Satin Doll” went on to being a Jazz classic and the production once known as “Cole Black and the Seven Dwarfs” men faded into obscurity. Pity. It really sounded like it could have been something great. Arguably if Satin Doll and the Seven Little Men made it to Broadway it could have been a hit especially with the name Disney attached to it.

If the production was successful, Satin Doll arguably might have been re-imagined in an animated medium making her Disney’s first African American princess, and not Tiana from Princess and the Frog some sixty-odd years later.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Death of the Movie Poster

Excerpt from Frank Darabont’s forward for “The Art of Drew Struzan”:  “There’s no sugar coating this. Movie posters suck these days. They’re going to suck even more tomorrow.”  “Almost without exception, present day movie posters are merely computer-manipulated composite photographs of actors that fall into two mind-numbingly predictable categories: a) the “big head” approach, wherein the actors stare at you from above the title; or b) the dull witted “police lineup” approach where a hip young cast stands in a line striking saucy poses and staring like a troop of lobotomy victims.”

“These posters are slapped together in-house by marketing gerbils who’ve fooled themselves into thinking they’re artists because the can operate a Mac.”

Reading that, this is what immediately came to mind.

The question really isn’t about studio execs working their greasy pork chop hands into the creative process of movie posters. Frankly that has been going on since the birth of movie posters.  Photoshop and the digital age has maybe given the illusion of speeding up the process but movie posters have used a variety of media from illustration, photographic compositing , and a combination of the two.
Frankly Photoshop-ing movie poster art is nothing new in my opinion. In the old days it was called “airbrushing”.

However, I feel where Frank Darabont is coming from on the seeming death of “illustrative movie art”.

Films from the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films, or even the first Harry Potter film created a feeling of timeless classics that are not just entertainment fare but works of art. Note, I am referring to the films having the capacity to be seen as as works as art. Not just the posters.  

Not a fan of Harry Potter at all, but every time I see that poster for that first film. I just can’t help feeling there is something “special” about it.   Harry Potter is not my thing, but that poster makes me look at that first film as something that should be respected. Enough to even make me revisit that film someday. Maybe I missed something…

Come on, which movie would you rather see?

Dave Hickey in his essay on Norman Rockwell, impled that around 1962 (one of his last paintings for the Saturday Evening Post), “Lunch Break With a Knight” perhaps reflected a change in though in culture. A waning interest in the traditional. The direction of future thought. If this is true, then perhaps it’s also reflected in Rockwell’s previous 1962 cover, “The Connosseur”.

Peter Rockwell noted in an interview it was also around this time, that the Saturday Evening Post in competition with television, decided not to print the traditional American images of Rockwell on the covers anymore.  Is this all about the death of illustration?
I took a quick look at the Apple Trailers page. Not one illustration. Even the animated films like 'Rango' or 'Tangled' looks like they just posed the CG models onto a background. Hardly an illustration.

This was a great deal of my case for hand-drawn animation. Like it or not, illustration invokes a sense of care, craft and yes, dammit, humanity in what is being communicated.
Where are today’s Frank Frazettas? Today’s Norman Rockwells? Our Howard Pyles?
Comic book artists like Jim Lee or Frank Miller as well as other comic book artists may be some of the last bastions of illustrative art appreciated by a mass audience. People want to see their art because of their unique touch and expression.  That is until someone comes up with the idea to do CG 3D comic books and companies can do away with artists all together.

Darabont in his preface summed it up, fifty years from now, nobody is going to have a poster of “Mean Girls” or “Knocked Up” on their walls. “But people will have Drew Struzan’s masterpieces proudly displayed. They are works of art that, like all great art, will last.”

In the meantime here's an interesting thread worth looking at:   The Death of the Movie Poster.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

DISNEY's Golden Opportunity

How'd that Art Babbit anecdote from Richard Williams go? "I'm not a Luddite". A story how animator legend Art Babbit was contesting the use of new technology over traditional ways in animation.

I'm not on a mission to champion hand-drawn animation but, let me stop lying -- I am. But it's only because it's I feel it's one of the last mediums that people can truly say is "magical". Something that seems to be lacking in today's concept of entertainment.

People look at a fantastic CG film like a "Finding Nemo" or "Wall-E" and people say "Wow, how'd they do that?" But logic takes over and says , "Oh, it was done in the computer.....wonder what program they used...." (respect to all the artists who work in CG, of course it isn't that easy, but to the layman....I'd wager that's what many think).

People look at at "Beauty and the Beast", "Lion King" or "Bambi" (even by today's standards), people's suspend their disbelief for a moment and they say, "How'd they do that??" Yes, logic takes over and tells the layman, "Well...someone drew it." But then logic grabs hold again replies: "Yeah, I know they're drawings but....HOW'D did they do that??"

Magic. No program for that.

For those who are animators, draftsmen or illustrators, you know that "look of wonderment" people have when you grab a piece of paper, and like a magician, make a bunch of hand-drawn lines come to life and with personality. People still look at it as some kind of magic trick.

Looking at Disney Animation Studio's box office movie track record, they have a history of "breaking even". Films like "The Lion King" are an anomaly that the studios have desperately been attempting to replicate ever since.

It's virtually criminal how Disney's management literally threw the baby out with the bathwater in an effort to "keep up with the Joneses'" in CG animation.

With the exception of "Treasure Planet" and "Home On the Range" (I feel they just gave up on that one), Disney's hand-drawn films haven't done so badly. "Princess and the Frog" arguably did better at the box office than ALL of Disney's CG animated films. And with "Tangled" coming in at a budget of $250 million (second most expensive film ever made) ---- sad to say box office returns just don't look promising.

'Frog' had a better B.O. performance for their dollar than their CG films which basically broke even. (Which are still failures, because of the low profit margin) And if I'm right the animation for 'Frog' was done in Canada since there aren't any hand-drawn facilities at Disney animation anymore. Cost them even less money to be sure.

To the point, this is a golden, golden opportunity for Disney in this current market. Why doesn't Disney simply do what they do best? "Make moving , appealing films that yes, do have compelling and mature stories --- in traditional hand-drawn animation."

That's what Disney is MOST famous for, right? People say animation of ANY kind and Disney is what comes to mind. And especially "hand-drawn" animation. They have the market on that, and they have never had to apologize for it and they NEVER will.

When every studio is trying to make the next CG blockbuster, wouldn't it make more sense to make something that distinguishes you dramatically from your competitors?? Especially when it's something everyone looks to you on being the authority about, anyway?

Should I insert the "New Coke" vs. 'Classic Coke" business theory in here?

Looking at B.O. sales Disney should stop trying to compete with Pixar, Dreamworks, Sony, Blue Sky, Imagi, Animal Logic or whatever fly-by-night CG studio and go back to doing what they do best: compelling hand-drawn animation. If they are worried about being "left behind" technology wise that's a moot point since they own Pixar.

Films like "Finding Nemo", "Toy Story" or even "Shrek" did so well when they did is greatly because they were different. Yes, the stories were told well, but they also stood out as something attractively new. Something Disney could exploit dramatically right now.

But if they do, they will have to do better than "Winnie the Pooh" as a feature. (As much as I love Pooh) I am sure it will make money but that film has: "targeted for mothers babysitting kids between 11:00 am and 3:00 pm" written all over it. Winnie the Pooh offhand is not what most moviegoers would call a date movie. At least they way it's being marketed it doesn't seem that way. (If I am off or wrong, someone please call me out)

The movies that sell the most year round are comedies...and I'm sure romantic comedies. Isn't that right up Disney's alley? That's basically what everything from Beauty and the Beast, to Aladdin, to Mulan basically were. Comedies with a romantic element. That's why they worked not only as family fare, but were decent enough to be a date movie. (That is when the writing was up to snuff.)

It's one thing for Disney to expand into the CG territory, but doing it in favor to replace a medium that has fueled it's engine for over seventy years was a mistake. When they were at the top of their hand-drawn game, Disney was like the NY Yankees of animation. Who the hell could touch them when they could assemble the dream teams of their choosing?

Am I wrong, but are there dramatically more studios around today making CG animated features? Now that technology has somewhat leveled the playing field somewhat?
When all the studios are trying to impress audiences with CG and 3D this and that, it's hard to know, or care for that matter who is producing what.

Golden opportunity for a studio doing something different to truly stand out. There's a brass ring hanging out there waiting for Disney to reclaim ... again.

To Disney management: "You guys are in the magic business. Who ever thought of the catchphrase: Disney's "Digital Magic" is a moron....I mean, the word is an oxymoron. Digital concepts can be reasoned, explained understood logically.

Magic.... (the thing Disney virtually has the license on) ... magic never is explained so easily. Who knows where that stuff comes from when artists draw? It must be magic because most artists themselves can't explain it. You guys have a hot and rare commodity. Exploit it before someone else does."