Wednesday, January 31, 2007

National Gorilla Suit Day

January 31 is National Gorilla Suit Day. We celebrated today at One Way Street. That's me and super-cool puppeteer/puppet builder Ryan Spittler in the gorilla suits. So go out there and party in your gorilla suit.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Duck Maul

Duck Maul
Originally uploaded by j-a-x.
"At last we will reveal ourself to the Jedi. At last we will have revenge."

Gotta love flickr.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Trigger and Buttermilk

A while ago I shared about how One Way Street was contacted by the Roy Rogers Museum to create some puppet versions of a few of Roy's pals. First we created Gabby Hayes, and now I'm really pleased to present Roy and Dale's horses - Trigger and Buttermilk. The puppets are just plain beautiful. I'm really proud of Keann and the rest of the staff over in our construction zone. Soon you'll be seeing some horse characters that we will be offering to everyone (a bit different than these, of course). A horse expert in our office mentioned that horse shoe manufacturers put their name at the top of the curve on the shoes. If you check out Buttermilk's hoof you'll see "OWS" on the shoe.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Back the Future Part II - Taxi

Here's another fun inside joke from "Back to the Future Part II." This is another scene taking place in the year 2015, the location is the Cafe 80's. Look at the TV up in the top left corner. That's Danny DeVito in the series "Taxi" on the screen, before his days of appearing drunk on "The View." One of the co-stars of "Taxi" was Christopher Lloyd who appears in all of the Back to the Future films as Doc Brown.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Best Animated (Motion Capture) Feature

The nominations for the 79th annual Academy Awards were announced today. I actually got up early and watched the announcement live this morning. Last year I started doing a little contest with the staff at One Way Street to see who could pick the most winners for the Oscars. You can find the complete list of nominees here.

I was really glad a few years ago when they introduced the category of Best Animated Feature. The number of nominees in this category varies from year to year depending on the number of eligible films released. This year there are 3 nominees: "Cars", "Happy Feet", and "Monster House". If you ask me, there's no contest. "Cars" will win. I've actually seen all three of these films, that's pretty rare for me now days.

"Cars" was a great movie. I think the producers forgot they were making a movie aimed at kids toward the middle though. I think all the Route 66 nostalgia was cool, but they went a bit overboard with it and the kids in the audience got a bit antsy. Still a fantastic movie, though and a real advancement in computer animation.

"Happy Feet" was a big disappointment to me. I found the animation really flat, the voices uninteresting, and the blunt force politics of the film to be just plain annoying.

I enjoyed "Monster House," for the most part. I didn't like the character design at all, but it was a good little horror story. Definitely not a kids movie, though they tried to market it that way. I watched this one before deciding whether or not to let my kids watch it. I think they'd find it too scary. But I have no problem with a good horror story. In fact, I think this film would've worked much better as a live action movie. Honestly I found the animation to be somewhat distracting in this case.

The big question here has to do with the fact that only one of these movies, "Cars," didn't utilize motion capture. "Monster House" was all motion capture. It was filmed with actors covered in white dots and then transferred to computer generated characters. "Happy Feet" hat quite a list of motion capture performers in the end credits, I assume for much of the penguin dancing sequences. So is this truly animation? Honestly, I'm not sure myself. It comes across to me as being like a new high-tech version of rotoscoping, which I have never been a fan of. Rotoscoping is essentially tracing animation over footage that was filmed. Ralph Bakshi is a director who used this quite a bit in films like the animated version of "The Lord of the Rings." I think it looks kind of creepy myself.

So is motion capture animation? Should it be eligible for the Oscar? I suppose, but I hope that we don't reach the day where all animated films are done with motion capture. At least the most creative and orignal of these films is the one that used no motion capture.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Baltar and Boomer

I've mentioned before that I'm no great artist, but I like to draw and when something actually turns out halfway decent I like to share it. So whether or not they actually look like the real deal, these two drawings were drawn with two of the characters from Battlestar Galactica in mind...Boomer (above) and Baltar (below).

Friday, January 05, 2007

Back to the Future Part II - Jaws 19

I love looking for hidden gags in movies. Thought I might share some from time to time. Here's an old one from "Back to the Future Part II."

The Back to the Future films were produced by Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment. So here we have a reference to one of Spielberg's earliest hits "Jaws," as Marty McFly explores the year 2015. What's interesting to note is the marquee credits Max Spielberg, Steven's son, as the director of "Jaws 19." We're going to need to have about two new Jaws films a year from now until 2015 if we're going to see this prophecy fulfilled.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut

The 1978 film "Superman" is, to this day, one of the finest films based on a comic book character ever made. Actually, forget the comic book part, it's a great film period. Without a doubt, director Richard Donner's finest moment. The 1980 follow-up, "Superman II," is also a great a movie. Not as good as the first, but how many sequels are? For every Empire Strikes Back there are twenty Son of the Mask's. According to the credits, part II was directed by a different Richard...Richard Lester. The truth, however, is much more complicated.

"Superman" and "Superman II" were actually shot simultaneously, like the Lord of the Rings films were a few years ago. One day, director Richard Donner and his crew may work on scenes from part one and on the next be working on scenes from part two. However, problems arose along the way and production on part two was halted in favor of completing part one. To make a long story short, the first film was released and was a huge success. However, when the time came to complete the sequel, the producers chose to fire Donner (even though he had already shot most of the second film) and hand the reigns over to Lester. Now it's not unheard of for the director of a film to change during production. "The Wizard of Oz," one of the greatest films ever, saw director Victor Flemming leave the production before it was complete to work on "Gone with the Wind." What makes the case of "Superman II" so interesting is that when Richard Lester came on board the film took a completely different tone. Lester is more of a comedic director, so a lot of humor was added. Some scenes that had been shot already by Donner were re shot, and major changes were made. The biggest change being that Marlon Brando, who played Superman's father Jor-El, was completely eliminated from the film so that the producers would not have to pay him a percentage of the profit.

Over the last few years, internet fans of the Superman films began lobbying the studio (Warner Brothers) to resurrect Richard Donner's footage and put together a new cut of the part two that more closely reflected his original vision. Amazingly, the studio agreed with the fans. The result is a new DVD version of "Superman II" radically different than the one released to theaters in 1980.

The Donner cut is much darker than the Lester version. The climactic battle between Superman and the three super villains is a pretty intense action sequence in both versions of the film. But Lester's version included several gags mixed in with the action that just didn't fit. As a kid I thought they were funny, but as an adult I see that they took away from the action and spoiled the believability of the film. Part of what made the first Superman film works so well is that it wasn't treated like a comic book story... it was believable.

Now I'm not anti-Richard Lester (as some on the net seem to be). Lester's version of "Superman II" is still a good movie. But Lester had the misfortune of following Richard Donner's finest moment as a director. The original "Superman" is a classic, one of the great films of the 1970's. But to give credit where credit is due, Richard Lester is no slouch. He's also had a moment of greatness... his is called "A Hard Day's Night."

The best thing about the Richard Donner cut is the restoration of the Marlon Brando scenes. In Lester's version, Brando was replaced by Susannah York playing Superman's mother. With Brando back in, the sequences are completely different, and present a new opportunity for a Christian application. In the new version, Superman asks his father to take away his power's so he can follow his own selfish desires (a relationship with Lois). Later he must return to ask for his "birthright" back when the three super villains threaten the Earth. The father welcomes him's the prodigal son story.

So which is better? Donner's version or Lester's version? Both are good, and both have some problems. Watching the Donner cut certainly requires the viewer to use their imagination as some of the edits are a bit rough and even footage on an early screen test is used for one sequence that was never shot in any other way. Also, the ending is's the way it was originally scripted, but since they used the same gimmick at the end of part I, it just doesn't work here. Still, I think I prefer the Donner version. If you're a fan of the Superman films, give this DVD a look. Also, be sure to take the time to listen to the commentary track by Donner and creative consultant (that's code for "writer") Tom Mankiewicz. It's quite candid and insightful.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

I Feel Pretty

Mastering lip synchronization is very important when it comes to operating a moving-mouth style puppet, but it's really just one small part of the big picture. Humans communicate so much through body language, puppets should do the same. Just take a look at "I Feel Pretty" from the Charles Aznavour episode of "The Muppet Show" (Season 1). In pure Muppet form, a pretty girl puppet transforms herself into a monster as she sings the classic song from "West Side Story." During the course of the song, the appearance of the puppet changes, so does the voice...those things obvious. However, what sells the transformation is the gradual change of body language.

As the piece begins, the puppet's movements are very graceful and flowing. The first change comes as the puppet removes her nose. Immediately the voice becomes nasal and the body language becomes somewhat stiff. When a bulbous green nose is put into place, the body language is similar to what we saw in the beginning, but with a bit of a sinister touch. The fingers of the puppet (a human-arm character) start to wiggle in a creepy way. After replacing the hair and eyes, a mouthful of fangs is put in place. Now the character's posture is almost hunched over and the character seems to almost lunge out at the audience.

It's unclear which puppeteer performed this character (the ending voice is clearly Henson's, the starting voice is clearly not). Whoever they were, they were very aware of making a transformation happen not just by adding monstrous features, but also having the actions of the character change with these features.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

What's My Part?

Sorry for the delay in the "What I've Learned from the Muppets" series. Things have been busy.

I love the Guy Smiley game shows from Sesame Street. One of my favorites is "What's My Part," which can be found on the 2nd disc of the "Sesame Street: Old School" DVD. As I was shoveling out from the Denver Blizzard of '06 part II (Electric Boogaloo) I was thinking about this skit. I realized that this skit is a great example of different styles of puppet lip synchronization.

The skit is a parody of the old game show "What's My Line," except in this version three panelists ask questions to try and identify a certain body part. The three panelists are monsters (including Cookie Monster), the mystery guest is a nose, and Guy Smiley is the host.

Now Guy Smiley is an example of what I usually tell puppeteers not to do. As Guy Smiley, Jim Henson would not vary the degree he opened the mouth at all. The mouth of the character opens very wide for every syllable. Henson is even guilty of flipping the lid quite a bit. Puppeteers usually focus the mouth movements more in the bottom jaw of the puppet. In this case the upper jaw moves quite a bit. I wouldn't usually recommend operating a puppet in this way, but for Guy Smiley it works. Guy is supposed to be the ultimate cheesy game show host. He gets overly excited about the most ridiculous things. These hyper mouth movements fit his character, but if every puppet in the skit acted this way the audience would probably get seasick.

The three monsters are at the other end of the lip synch spectrum. Their mouth movements are quite subtle. If you've ever seen some of those old "What's My Line" shows, you may remember that the panelists were often writers or newspaper columnists. They were presented as being rather cultured individuals. These monsters are also presented as being sophisticated characters. Even Cookie comes off as being quite civilized. Their voices are not frantic or hyper like Guy Smiley, which is the opposite of what you'd expect from a monster. Since their voices are calm and intelligent, the mouth movements are fairly minimal. The fact that this is coming from strange looking monster characters just adds to the humor.

There is one more character in the skit, the nose. The puppet is pretty much just a big nose. It does speak, but there is no mouth. Does this mean there's no lip synch? Of course not! The nose doesn't simply float there, it moves in synch with what it is saying. Even though we see no mouth, the character appears to be speaking through it's movements. The performance of this puppet shows that there is more to lip synch than flapping that jaw. It's also worth noting that the nose also appears to look at Guy Smiley and the other characters, even though there are no eyes. Just like lip synch is possible without a mouth, eye contact is possible without eyes.

"What's My Part" is also a great example of the Sesame Street writing style which makes the show enjoyable for both kids and parents. As a kid, it was completely lost on me that the reason these three monsters could not recognize a nose, even when they take their blindfolds off, is that none of them have noses. As an adult, I now see layers of humor in this skit I had never noticed as a child.