Saturday, February 19, 2005

Wallace & Gromit Go To The Movies

I'd watch these two characters read the phone book. But since they have a movie coming out this October, I won't have to.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Amos And Andy And Calvin And Colonel

Charles asked in a comment if I knew the animated cartoon Calvin & the Colonel. Coincidentally, I was just reading about it at Cartoon Brew. I've never seen an episode, but some will have the opportunity.

It can be tricky peeling the art from the artist. If you didn't like Bob Hope's politics, or Bing Crosby's parental manner, can you enjoy their work? If Mark Heath is an idiot, can Spot the Frog be any brighter?

Since Calvin & the Colonel debuted in 1962, we've had plenty of time to put things in perspective, to reflect on the context. We've changed, but the work remains constant. In the end, the work always speaks for itself.

If you have a chance to see an episode, let me know how it struck you.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

When A Good Sponge Goes Bad

Like a lot of kids, I'm a fan of Spongebob. His insane and unrelenting good humor, and the animation's fresh and startling double-takes and reaction shots (my favorite: Spongebob cries like no one on television has ever cried when his grandmother stops treating him like a child.) But until I read this, I'd never realized the dark side to Spongebob's cheer:
A great study in how nice people get away with murder can be found in Spongebob Squarepants. Spongebob is classic nice, insisting that everyone conform to his view of what they should be doing or how they should be acting and feeling. In the process, he deeply insults his (platonic) friend Sandy the squirrel, lands his driving instructor Mrs. Puff in jail, constantly invades Squidward's privacy, takes horrible advantage of good-natured Patrick and regularly puts bystanders and the entire town of Bikini Bottom in physical peril. In fact, he will stoop to anything to get his way. But the havoc he wreaks is excused by all. People can't help but favor someone so forcefully sweet and sensitive.
This comes from a site called Interesting Ideas that lives up to its title.

Loud And Clear And Alive

Another example of mirror neurons in action, where the lifeless gain life. This is about Paul Winchell and his wooden sidekick, Jerry Mahoney, courtesy of Mark Evanier:

Back when TV was just beginning, Paul was asked to make his first appearance and they brought him in to do a test. Throughout the test, the director kept telling him, "We can't hear Jerry." Paul could be heard when he spoke as Paul but the "thrown" voice could not. He raised the volume as much as humanly possible to the point of almost bursting a blood luck. The consensus was that, for some unknown technical reason, there was something about a ventriloquist voice that did not register on TV microphones.

Word of this spread throughout the business and Paul, of course, was depressed that his skill — ventriloquism — would not be a part of this new medium.

His agent finally got another producer to give it a try. Another test was arranged and Paul went in. It went just like the first test: Paul's voice could be heard when he talked as himself but, when he did Jerry's voice, the boom microphone suspended over their heads could not pick it up.

They were about to declare it a disaster but then Paul happened to glance up and he noticed that the man who operated the boom mike was moving it back and forth — the way he would do if two performers were talking on stage, pointing it towards whoever was speaking. He asked the man, "Where are you pointing the boom when Jerry is talking?"

The man shrugged. "Over Jerry's head, of course."

Paul patiently told him, "Keep the mike on me at all times." The man did, they tried it again...and Jerry Mahoney was heard, loud and clear and ever after.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

What's Up, Doc?

Though the new series hasn't launched yet, the picture of a demented Bugs has me shaking my head. But Mark Evanier at his News From Me blog points out that many fine things begin as head-shaking longshots.

(via Cartoon Brew)

Why Shovel When You Can Nibble

My many thanks to Kiri for lending her name and idea on snow removal. With luck the strips will do justice to her name. And if not, I'll happily assume the role of goat.

As far as I know, most goats demand more than snow to survive. Kiri is no exception, as tomorrow's strip will explain.

CSI: Will Wheaton

not the only fan.

Ink Blot Test

If you see an upside-down goat, you're in fine shape.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Cartooning Without Tears

There's a fine site called Cool Tools, which is about sticks and stones and other, more recent, inventions. The latest new tool in our house is the knitting needle, so I perked up when CT mentioned Knitting Without Tears, a primer with more than a little philosophy:

If you are a habitually tight knitter, try to kick the habit. Loose knitting tends to make your stitches look somewhat uneven, but what of it? Are you trying to reproduce a boughten machine-made sweater? Besides, it is surprising what blocking and a few washings will do to uneven knitting.

I used to think that people in the Olden Days were marvelously even knitters, because all really ancient sweaters are so smooth and regular. Now I realize that they probably knitted just as I do, rather erratically, and that it is Time, the Great Leveller, which has wrought the change - Time and many washings.

I think cartoons are the same way. At least I hope so. I know I draw Spot and Karl and Buddy a bit differently from strip to strip, depending on my facility and mood and memory. But I have an idea that once a reader takes enough of a character's image into her mind, it creates a vast and forgiving template of how the character looks. A blueprint for building Spot with half-inch tolerances.

Or maybe I should take the other lesson: loosen up, and let the lines take care of themselves.


(via boiongboing)

You Know The Face, You Know The Music

If you're a fan of jazz or Peanuts, you'll know this face. Vince Guaraldi's son runs a tribute site, which promises to eventually offer "an archive of Vince Guaraldi memorabilia: family photos, hand-written music sheets, newspaper articles, liner notes and other important artifacts..." They're also sorting through boxes of neglected recordings for eventual publication, including a tantalizing collection of musical cues from the Peanuts cartoons, stripped of dialogue and sound effects. For example, there's a jaunty and spooky mini-theme you hear at the start of It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. I'd love to hear that on a CD.

There's also a discussion board, which led me to this Dave Matthews clip. (you'll need to register first) A live cover of Linus & Lucy. For the first few minutes we hear a crowd murmuring over the piano, the general elbow-bumping white noise of an audience. The hubbub eventually dims as the piano player -- Butch Taylor -- doodles what sounds like a casual improvisation on the Guaraldi style (but according to a poster on the board, this is "the rarer Thanksgiving special version, where Vince added a little bluesy walk-up before the main theme.") And then, at the 3:11 minute mark, the theme begins in earnest and the brief stillness of the audience snaps into loud pieces as listeners whoop and holler and perhaps wave their shirts overhead.

I like the idea of listeners losing their heads when they hear music first heard while they were kids.

Peanuts Timeline

I can't vouch for the accuracy of this list, but it's still a stunning recital of story lines.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Cheers To Pooch Cafe

According to The Hollywood Reporter, Sean Hayes and Todd Milliner's NBC-based Hazy Mills Productions have optioned the comic strip Pooch Cafe, to be developed as a half-hour animated comedy series. This is one of my favorite strips. The animators and writers will need to eat a lot of quality kibble to match it.

Wishbones And Cartoon Frogs

I just watched an episode of NOVA Science Now, and the first and last segment had me quivering to share what I'd seen.

I should probably wait a few days for the thoughts to settle down and become more lucid. But for some of us, time doesn't guarantee lucidity, and I want to write about this while it's still fresh.

Two topics: Mirror neurons, and the kinetic sculpture of Arthur Ganson.

The first is the recent discovery of neurons that seem to be responsible for empathy. For example, if you pick up a glass, certain neurons fire. If you watch someone pick up a glass, the same neurons fire. As far as your mind is concerned, you're picking up a glass.

If you watch a football game, you're running with the ball. If you watch a soap opera, you're dealing with evil twins.

There are many qualities that distinguish humanity, but empathy might be the greatest. It informs nearly everything we do. We explore, we build, we teach, we assist. And empathy for the human condition is the common link.

What amazes me is that such a fine quality of the mind could have a physical root. I've always assumed that we did what we did -- forged the Golden Rule, created the social security system -- because intellectually and emotionally it rang true. But the notion of mirror neurons suggests that it runs deeper than intellect or selflessness. We can empathize with someone's plight, feel it in our bones, because it's a reflection of our biological machine and how we interpret what we see.

Why do we respond to pictures of cute kittens? I don't mean, "Look, there's a cute kitten," noted in the tone of a census taker. I mean, "Look, there's a cute kitten," with a pang in the chest. I know it's partly the ativistic kickstart of genes prompting us to love and protect babies. But why does it feel so real? So personal?

Because we're built that way.

The host ducked into an MRI machine and had his brain scanned while he looked at a series of photographs: people grimacing or smiling. He was asked to mimic the pictures, and his brain activity spiked in the usual fashion. He was then asked to look at the pictures and think about them, keeping his face immobile. His brain sparked and fizzed as if he were grinning or scowling.

It's as if we're natural mirrors. We reflect what we see, and we learn from what we see. Put two mirrors face-to-face and you've got more than a dizzying illusion of infinity. As the images bounce back and forth, between the moment of doing and the moment of observing, you're creating society and culture.

I've always been amazed by the trick of cartoons: you can look at a smiley face or a cartoon frog and feel that you're contemplating something true and complex. And when you read about Spot, an imaginary two-dimensional character, trying to scrounge up a dime for his rent, it feels familiar: you know what it's like to pay rent, so watching Spot do the same feels real and immediate. Mirror neurons are firing and the connection is made.

To illustrate the power of this mirror system, the program sequed to a short video of a walking wishbone. It's a marvelous and dramatic contraption. A wishbone is wired to something that looks like the skeleton of a clock tower, with sundry gears keeping their private time. Compared to the little wishbone, it's huge. And the wishbone is pulling it. The artist/engineer writes that the animation was inspired by his memory of saddle-sore cowboys. To my mind it looked like the wishbone were yoked to a giant plow, and while the machine whirred -- or so I imagine, since the film was silent -- the stolid wishbone dragged it along.

A piece of bone. No face. No arms. No body. And I guarantee that when you watch the video in its final few seconds, when the camera pulls back to show a wide view, your mirror neurons will click, and the wishbone will transform into flesh-and-blood.

More Frogs In Paint

Spot isn't the only frog to dabble in paint. This is the Splash-back Poison Frog, named for its sloppy application of color. Since my confession of knowing little about poison dart frogs, beyond their job description, I've been doing some light research. I can now report that most poison frogs become toxic thanks to a diet of ants and savory anthropods, or by tweaking mild poisons they swallow into something more potent.

Of the frogs described at this site, my favorite is the Brazil-nut poison frog. They earn the name because they raise their tadpoles in the hollow shells of Brazil-nuts. The sort of thing you might find in The Wind in the Willows, if it took place in South America.

(photo © Taran Grant/AMNH)

Taking The Job Seriously

Fantagraphics has been collecting the complete run of Peanuts. The latest, Volume 2, mentions that the top tier to a golf-themed sunday was missing, but would be included in future editions if discovered. And thanks to a snatch of microfilm, it has.

The top tier, of course, was designed to be discarded. Some comic panels take their job seriously.

Symptoms You Won't Find In the PDR

Here's Spot the Frog from last year's Valentine's Day. Nothing especially sentimental is broached, but I'm reminded that Spot's eyes have become increasingly lopsided in the past year, and Buddy looks several ounces lighter than his current weight. The unbalanced eyes and weight gain, of course, are typical symptoms when you spend too much time with a cartoonist, which Spot and Buddy certainly do.

Locus Online: 2004 Recommended Reading

If your reading tastes spring from the same bowl as mine, or at least the same table, here's a great reading list, courtesy of Locus. I especially enjoyed Perfect Circle by Sean Stewart, filled with heart, ghosts, and great detail (for example, if you're wondering what to wear to a brawl, a jacket with fish hooks sewn behind the lapels is always tasteful.)

Happy Mate of an Insecure Cartoonist Day

Like Christmas, Valentine's can be a bittersweet day for those who are alone. I've known a few of those days. And because life is a fickle thing -- which is to say, short -- I may know them again. But for the moment I'm lucky to have Mary, that most improbable of persons: someone who can withstand the moody gale of living with an insecure cartoonist. There should be a separate holiday for that occasion, but in the meantime, Valentine's will do.