A Short Time with Suzan

This Saturday in Bethlehem, PA I met George Nicholas at the South Side Film Festival. His film, Smoke -N- Suds, played with our film Ride in a short animation section. That program also included my current favorite festival film Take Rabbit, a rare piece that includes a real Virginia Woolf conclusion without being grim.

George credited Blue Kraning with the wise advice to NOT animate his story (I’m glad he didn’t take the advice, his film is a fun snapshot of long gone era). After our Q&A I told him that I know Blue, but I know him through his mother really (and also his brilliantly talented wife). We then waxed on about the amazing Suzan Pitt. George said she wasn’t doing well and was with the family in New Mexico. “She hasn’t made enough art,” I remarked selfishly, “she’s a person who is always creating but, for me, it’s still never enough.”

By the next morning, she had died.

There are countless people who knew her well, worked with her closely, and lived by her side for years. I hope they share pieces of Suzan that she left with them and that they keep her work vibrant. I only worked with her briefly, peripherally, on a project that barely warrants a footnote in her career. That time, to me, is seminal. I’d like to share my favorite story from it.

I had been working at The Ink Tank for around a year. I was doing office work. Answering phones. This was an era when people called on the telephone so frequently you needed a person dedicated to answering it. I hated it.

joy street


The studio had just begun production on a series of short films for The Children’s Television Workshop (to once more age the story, they’ve been known as Sesame Workshop for around a quarter century). Maciek Albrecht was directing and setting up a studio in Krakow to handle the animation. We needed someone to run the show stateside. R. O. Blechman has just seen Joy Street at the New York Film Festival. Always a man of stellar taste, he immediately loved it. He asked Suzan Pitt if she would handle the production from the U.S. She had never done anything like that before, but no one involved in the production had done anything like it, what difference would one more person make.

One of her conditions was that the studio would pay for the transfer of her 35mm films to DigiBeta (go ahead and laugh, it was the best 720x486 NTSC had to offer).

Since I knew nothing about just about everything, I figured I would take every opportunity to observe the mechanics of production and to watch as much film, especially animation, as possible. I had seen Joy Street on VHS, and it immediately became the greatest animated film I had seen. I had probably seen about 20 at this point in my life. It edged out -barely- John and Faith Hubley’s Eggs.

A nighttime transfer session was scheduled to run some of Suzan’s older films (at SyncSound, I think. Possibly Magno but I think it was SyncSound since they were doing the audio post and were trying to push their film-to-tape operation. It’s also possible this was at TapeHouse since the show was mostly transferred there, but I don’t think it was).

Nighttime telecine was usually about half the cost of a daytime transfer. I don’t understand the economics of this, maybe it was a supply/demand thing. Less that night transfers cost less, more that post houses could charge premium during the day to advertising clients. Typically the night operators weren’t as experienced as the day operators, often causing the half-priced transfer to take twice as long.

Nighttime also meant I could attend the session and not miss out on any important filing or phone calls that I was getting paid to handle. So I went with Suzan to transfer Asparagus, which I had never seen. In the dark room she told me how she had dozens of friends and students animate the stop motion theater scene by having each person take care of a single character in the audience. That way each puppet would have an individual performance, and really, anybody could do it. (Really, anybody? Even a no-talent like me?!?) Anybody.

So we sat there in the dark for a few hours, ordered delivery and talked about regular people things and getting the right colors in video. And then the ultimate scene of the film rolled on. The scene in which the faceless woman takes the asparagus into her mouth and pulls up to reveal an “asparagus” shaped fountain of jelly beans, down again, and up to reveal a rainbow and down and up and down and up. 23-year-old me became incredibly uncomfortable. It is fair to say I’d never seen anything like that. To this day, I doubt I’ve encountered any art as charged with psychological depth, feminist agency, unparalleled artistry and sheer eroticism. And sitting right next to me was the woman responsible. An artist. A capital A Artist. She was thirty years older than me, older than my parents but right then she was the coolest, foxiest, brightest kid in town.

asparagus

I didn’t see her much after her stint at The Ink Tank. The next season of the show I even kind of took her job (not really, since she was a creative force and they really needed a person to make schedules and be a “producer” since Maciek was going to be directing from Brooklyn). She was always kind to me when we did pass and we emailed on and off a few years back. She was great, she left a legacy that makes us better.

New Trends in Characterization in Animation

This is an essay written by John Hubley orginally published in ASIFA, 1975, no. 1. I’ve made minor formatting edits.

The newsletter also recounts his exhibition with Faith Hubley at the American Cultural Center in Paris, at the the initiative of the French Association of Animated Cinema.

New Trends in Characterization in Animation
by John Hubley

In my approach to animation I am looking hopefully for fresh, stimulating ideas in certain aspects of the conceptual process. I am especially concerned with developing “character”. By character, I mean individual, specialized, human character as differentiated from the comic-strip generalities that are the familiars of popular animation. Traditionally the drawing of animated characters is stylized and frequently insensitive and unrelated to actual life modes. We animation artists have too often been content with comic-strip simplicity in terms of drawing, and more than that, in terms of characterization. Young artists today strive to bring more definition to the drawing of character. I think the new vision of human beings as animation “characters” presents a most urgent and promising prospect that needs purposeful extension.

When an animator draws a character he creates a symbol. By abstracting and purifying his representation as an object-organism, an artist creates his equivalent of a writer’s word. With motion he modifies it, and endows it with the power of dynamic transformation which can heighten and intensify the dramatic content. Just as a writer chooses those words which best suit and reveal his purpose, we as artists must chose characterization that go beyond mere linear caricatures. We live in a technological culture which tends to depersonalize and dehumanize its inhabitants. Why should we be content with stamping the same feature upon our work? I can foresee characterizations that go beyond the surface, physical aspects of a character, his facial expressions, movement body shape and bring to light visually dramatically relevant characteristics, his repressed emotional patterns, physical body systems, his drives and dreams.

“Balablok” (Bretislav Pojar, 1972)

“Balablok” (Bretislav Pojar, 1972)

Previous examples of this approach are few. Bretislav Pojar created a film at the Canadian Film Board in which a character is shown living with a miniature duplicate of himself inside. When he is confronted with a traffic policeman’s rage, the inner man reacts in various ways which affect the outer man’s behavior. (Disney did something similar in early Pluto shorts, where good and evil impulses in the form angel and devil “consciences” inside Pluto’s brain, struggled for control of his action.) Our own studio is currently preparing a series of three half hour film dramatizations of the Eight Stages of Man inspired by the work of Erik Erikson which will be treated in a somewhat similar manner. We are concerned here with basic character “strength” to which Erikson has given terms such as “Basic Trust” , “Basic Mistrust”, “Autonomy”, “Shame”, “Identity”, “Generality”, etc. So our problem is to show infants as they interact with their social environment; growing inner strength which becomes the core of their lifetime personalities. At this time we are dealing with a series of “inner” images appearing within the characters. The multiple aspect of these inner images reacting and counteracting with the “real” events of a person’s life, is beginning to reach in the direction of joining so-called visual and non-visual aspects of reality.

Artists around the world are defying to old “linear shape” order in graphics. Let’s hope we can defy the animated caricature and opt for humanizing and optimizing human capacities and “character” in animation.

“Everybody Rides the Carousel” (Hubley, 1975)

“Everybody Rides the Carousel” (Hubley, 1975)

Joltin' Joe

Several years back on the old blog I wrote about my first experience listening to Joe Frank. 

By Alvimann @ Morguefile.com

Joe, like millions of others who never met him, I feel like I can call him "Joe" died this morning after continuing and compounding health issues.

We are fortunate that he created the work he did, and we can revisit his singular voice anytime through www.joefrank.com

More still, his impact on radio broadcasting played no small part in the tone of the podcast boom where personal narrative and exploratory fiction have become dominant forms.

His work was famously "borrowed" to form the basis of Martin Scorsese's "After Hours". Other than a few bit parts and cameos, it's a disappointment that his involvement in cinema will largely be remember for that film he "didn't write".

The great Chel White made a few pieces with Joe's scripts, including "Magda".
 

I've never really understood when musicians or artists say they're "influenced" by another's work. What does that mean? How does it look? What are the results?

With Joe, I think I get it. His approach to form, to narrative, and most of all to emotional honesty is truly something I think about almost constantly in work we do. I've never met him, but he's been between my ears. There's probably no other artist who "influenced" me greater. 

Here's a thing that is almost embarrassingly close to showing that influence.
 

Dig It!

Here's something we recently finished -sequences for a documentary by Lomax Boyd of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute published by the great Nautilus Magazine.

 

This is a good example of a simple design development process.

We had a couple graphic ideas that we liked. On one end, we felt the story called for resolute but fluid line work. Counterpoint to that, I love mid-century dinosaur art and felt that could be a rewarding inspiration. 

 

This book of postcards is probably the best 25 cents I've ever spent

This book of postcards is probably the best 25 cents I've ever spent

The difficulty, of course, is creating a reasonable visualization of pre-history (at a very specific place and era) within the parameters of a short documentary's production.

This is an early concept drawing.

This is an early concept drawing.

The illustration style has to support the mood and concepts of the film, but is ultimately secondary to the narrative development of the sequences (generally speaking). The great trick in this was to demonstrate concrete things -like a mummified caribou (which is very hard to depict!) -while the narration touches on broad, semi-abstract ideas.

Mummified caribou

Mummified caribou

 

 In science and educational animation the visuals usually need to match the spoken script. It's important to note that this isn't always the case in other genre. A fictional film or personal narrative is often illuminated when the picture plays differently from the script.

 

Scimitar Cat

Scimitar Cat

Fortunately, Lomax, the director, has some great ideas and input to get the narrative aspects of the animation working.

 

Pleistocene Party!

Pleistocene Party!

Million Dollar Movie

Riding the coattails of Yusaku Maezawa's record setting purchase of Jean-Michel Basquiat's Untitled (1982), here's a little film we did for Sesame Street several years back using the artist's work.

The budget fell slightly shy of $110.5 million.  Actually, it was probably close to $1105.00.
 

Outrageous fortune aside, here's what the auction winner had to say about the painting: 

 
When I first encountered this painting, I was struck with so much excitement and gratitude for my love of art. I want to share that experience with as many people as possible.

I wish to loan this piece — which has been unseen by the public for more than 30 years — to institutions and exhibitions around the world. I hope it brings as much joy to others as it does to me and that this masterpiece by the 21-year-old Basquiat inspires our future generations.
 

I love a man who loves a thing so much he wants the world to share it.

With this new incarnation of the website, maybe we'll keep up the news/blog page more. Keep checking to find out. The old blog is still archived here: www.aceandson.com/blog