A few things to observe about The Lego Movie:

*It earned $69 million in February.  It’s animated.

*It sits at number two among all-time February openings ahead of Friday the 13th (2009), Tyler Perry’s Madea Goes to Jail, Shutter Island, The Vow, Hitch, Ghost RiderValentine’s Day, and Hannibal.  It only trails Passion of the Christ’s $83 million dollar opening.  As it happens, this is the same list for all time opening weekends in the winter, where it sits at number 2 as well.

*It features celebrity heavyweights such as Will Ferrell, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman, and other big names including Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Jonah Hill, Charlie Day, Alison Brie, and Channing Tatum.

*It’s looking at a holiday weekend coming up February 14-17.

*Its production budget of $60 million practically guarantees that we’ll be seeing a sequel within the next two years.

*Google worked a nice tie-in during the previews to its Chrome-app version of the Lego Digital Designer, a virtual lego builder that’s been around since I was ten.

This is the next Frozen.  What’s going for Lego is that, like Frozen, its word of mouth capability will carry the picture far.  What’s working against it is the stigma that it’s a product-placement slap to the face for anybody over the age of seven.  Even twelve year-old Ivan Sanchez remarked in an interview with Variety that the movie was for younger kids.  What’s going to overcome this obstacle, however, is word-of-mouth.  In the theater, laughter didn’t come from howling and screeching six year-olds every two minutes, rather there seemed to be a collective satisfaction in the humor on-screen.  Kids would laugh at Superman being covered in a pile of gum; adults would laugh at his misery in being wedged in next to the annoying, useless superhero Green Lantern.  This film has potential for some very strong legs, and I find it promising that, as more people see Lego and find out that it is in truth an ironic criticism of consumer culture and the parents who just buy whatever sets Lego puts out, it will connect with the cynical, grown-up, too-good-for-toys audience (like teenagers).

Something else we can expect from The Lego Movie is an inevitable sequel.  I’d like to think that the film’s central messages on creativity and originality would deter a follow up, but should the original team refuse, another will be hired.  Animal Logic, the animation team primarily behind the movie, has created such superb, specific programming and techniques for animating square, restricted bricks that, should they for any reason not be back on board with any sequel, the product will without question be considerably less than the original.  Look here for an article and here for a video on the making of The Lego Movie (provided by cartoonbrew.com).  Both provide details into the intricate, precise creation of a lego world in an animated movie.

Let’s pretend for a minute that Dreamwork’s Turbo and Sony’s Smurfs 2 are non-existant.  Let’s just close our eyes and wish those small disasters away.  Now for the truly large disasters that have rolled out this summer: White House Down, The Lone Ranger, Man of Steel, Pacific Rim, R.I.P.D., After Earth, and, though a bit more of a stretch, World War Z.  Box office turnout was decent for a few of these movies, but the profits just could never justify their cost.  It was an expensive summer, but the strategy just didn’t pay off ultimately.  The significance in this is that a lackluster summer of movies drives a lot of attention towards the animated pictures.  It put a lot more spotlight on movies like Disney’s Planes.  Originally a direct-to-video production, the money-making extension on Cars ultimately pulled off a decent showing.  Turbo and Smurfs, not so much.  Let’s face it though, we still had room for Disney-Pixar’s Monster’s University to not only become a box-office hit in comparison to other releases this summer, but it also marked a nice comeback for Pixar after two years of so-so productions.  Add on Epic and, more importantly, Despicable Me 2, and summer 2013 can pretty well be summed up in animation.  Sure there was no breakthrough, revolutionary story in any of these, but when it comes down to it, the forgettable big budget pictures that failed made room for animation this summer.

As time passes, a sequel to the 1988 hit Who Framed Roger Rabbit seems to increase its probability of becoming real.  Though it’s been a rumor and nothing more for years, with Robert Zemeckis having confirmed a script but leaving out strong details, I feel that in order for the film to be a success among both modern and elder cartoon lovers, a few things need to be tweaked in order for this film to be a success.

1.  The addition of the Hanna Barbera cast:  Yes, it’s about as controversial of a demand as you could make.  In fact, it might be as ridiculous as asking for the inclusion of Spongebob Squarepants in the movie.  Make no mistake, however, time has passed, and to modern audiences, characters like Yogi Bear, Fred Flintstone, and Quick Draw McGraw are as old as the Looney Tunes and Disney characters were when the original was released.  Of course, these characters would have no major roles (We wouldn’t be calling in Freddie and the Gang to solve anything), rather they could make simple cameos like Huckleberry Hound patrolling a street in a police car, or Top Cat taking a taxi for a spin.

2. A deeper development of Toontown:  Let’s find what makes Toontown work.  Are there different boroughs for the various ages of animation?  Do iconic buildings such as the clock tower from the Disney short “Clock Cleaners” exist, or are there forests in which Bugs, Daffy, and Elmer hold their violent escapades?  How do the new computer graphics fit into this world?  Is there an entirely different suburb for Shrek and Woody?  Basically, let’s see more of Toontown, but maintain a balance with the neat setting of classic Hollywood.

3.  Keep the story focused:  The geniuses in charge of this film without question understand that the success of the story lies in centering it, once again, around Roger Rabbit and Bob Hoskins, however, what I am afraid of is that the companies lending their characters will get too greedy and ask for a story more driven by their characters.  What made the movie such a success was that the moments on screen were special.  Daffy Duck and Donald Duck together for just 2 minutes was priceless, and it left the audience screaming for more.  And that’s just the point: the short moments of cameos are what make the film so exciting to watch.  Otherwise, it’d be a dumb cross over between franchises, sort of like a silly Batman meets Superman ordeal.

4.  Forget the family factor: In the first Roger Rabbit, there was an unmistakable adult feel to the film.  While it was by no means an “adult film,” it’d be hard to picture cartoons, murder, sex, and drugs all together on one screen.  It worked though, and to draw the same crowds as the first, especially with the content audiences are accustomed to today, a Roger Rabbit sequel will have to again toe that adult line, and at times even cross over it.

What’s cool anymore is as much a mystery to me as it is to an unthawed caveman. For me, old has always been cool.  These days, old furniture, record players, and just general assortments of retro crap are becoming cool to everybody else.  What surprises me is that the movies have not been largely affected by this “retro” craze.  Animated shorts are the ultimate throwback, and only recently has Disney begun to attempt the re-creation of animated shorts.

This year, the Mouse House released a web-exclusive, 3 minute Mickey Mouse cartoon entitled “Croissant de Triomphe.”  It’s impressive in that it delivers a picture that has the feel of an original, hand drawn short, and yet at the same time the computer aspect of it clearly shows.  While I do not know exactly how the short was made, I can make this judgement: it’s got the look of a great hand-drawn/computer-made hybrid.  And in just three minutes, Disney really packs in a story, most catering towards the shorter attention spans of today’s viewers.  Having been received well across the Internet, it can be assumed Disney will be pumping out more of these three minute Mickeys in the future, and, if other studios follow suit, we could witness a revisitation of the Golden Age of Animation during the Internet age of throwbacks and ever-changing trends.

Mickey Mouse – Croissant de Triomphe – Video Dailymotion.

Spring is here: baseball is back, my capris will be emerging from their long winter rest soon, love is in the air, and I’m writing letters.  Why, you might ask, would I write letters when the sun is shining and the flowers are blooming?  Thanks to www.fanmail.biz , I have recently found access to thousands upon thousands of celebrity adresses, including those of athletes, actors, actresses, authors, singers, and directors.

Back in February, I wrote three letters to John Hamm, Jeff Bridges, and Pete Doctor.  The first two men I wrote to simply because I like them and thought it would be cool to write them about my admiration of their recent work.  Currently, I am still waiting for their replies.  As for Mr. Doctor, however, I wrote asking for his advice on how to best enter the animation business, and what his experiences have taught him.  Amazingly, just a few weeks later, I received this in the mail!

Being home alone at the time, I sat down, opened the letter, but had a bit of a rough go at it as my hands were shaking uncontrollably and I was laughing with excitement.  Once I did get it open though, I found inside a personal, handwritten letter complete with sketches from none other than Peter Hans Doctor himself!

PD2

PD3

Without question, it was the coolest thing I had ever received by mail.  I skipped and danced around the house (as I was still alone), laughing and shouting with excitement.  It completely made up for  what I remember was an otherwise cruddy week.

What I think is important in this, however, is what we can take away from it.  Writing a hand-written letter has a much higher chance of receiving a response than an email would.  That is why now I am continuing my old-fashioned snail-mail letters, asking for advice from the guys at the top.

I think this also says a lot about Doctor himself too.  Most likely he forgot writing this two days after it was sent, but for me, I will never forget it.  He’s a busy guy, having directed the Pixar movies Up and Monsters Inc. and worked on nearly every Pixar film since the beginning, so for him to take the time to give me a little of what he knows is amazing.

The front of my now-framed letter from Doctor.

The front of my now-framed letter from Doctor.

And also the opposite side.

And also the opposite side.

After a trip through the heart of Downtown Cincinnati, I pull up to the historic Longworth Hall that lies just next to Paul Brown Stadium, and not more than 200 yards from the Ohio River.  After parking, I look up to take in my surroundings: behind me rattles a train raised on a track 100 feet in the air, on either side of me rumble cars speeding over the raised highways that lead from the West side into Cincinnati, and in front of me is a stretched out old brick warehouse with the words “Baltimore and Ohio” faintly printed across the facade, topped by a water-tower that reads “Longworth Hall.”  It’s the breeding ground for startups.

First passing a nightclub, I enter an elevator bound for the fourth floor.  Today, I am meeting with Jason Heaton, an animator at the relatively new Epipheo Studios.   Upon arriving on the fourth floor, I step out of the elevator to see the inside of the building exactly as I expected: wood floors and brick walls, and honestly it couldn’t be cooler.  Before long I see Jason walking quickly down the hall towards me, enthusiastically introducing himself and then without hesitation beginning our tour.  The offices of Epipheo, he informs me, had just expanded in January.  They have two spaces: the business side of the studio is located on one side of the elevator, and the animating side on the other. In about an hour, he shows me everything from the personal conference rooms (meant for just two or three people) to the communal spaces furnished with couches and tables to the animating desks and the sound production room.  For a business that had just moved in to Longworth Hall a year ago, it is impressive

Perhaps most unique to Epipheo’s space are three things: the desks, the conference rooms, and the white boards.  Most everybody has about a four-and-a-half to five foot tall desk at which to stand. Having made a video for a standing desk company about the harmful effects of sitting all day, Jason informed me the office is making an effort to ditch the desk chairs.  Lining the outside of the main office space are small rooms with a table and two or three chairs each.  These rooms provide a space for the producers and designers to get together and plan out each video.  Finally, most essential to the Epipheo style of work is the whiteboard.  Everything is planned, written, organized, and initiated by white board.  In fact, when Jason and I sit down to talk, he continually uses the whiteboard to illustrate what he is saying.

Beginning with Jon Collins in 2008, the studio is rooted in a video he made called the Advent Conspiracy Promo Video.  After a strong, positive response from friends and neighbors, as well as strangers, Collins got together three of his buddies to create a business out of his videos.  About one year later, a video was released on the new Google product, Google Wave, a product so confusing and confounding that Collins saw the perfect opportunity to create his next video discussing it.  Epipheo, by the studios’ definition, is a mix of an epiphany and a video.  When a person has a thought or idea that they need to share with the rest of the world, but they don’t know how best to share it, that’s when Epipheo steps onto the scene.  Collins demonstrated this with the video he created on Google Wave where he explained the pure basics of a confusing product in simplistic animation.  The video went viral, and five years later, we find his studio set up in Cincinnati and Portland creating short videos for CNN, Facebook, Ebay, and other big name companies, all the while with the motto “Truth, Story, Love.”

These days, Epipheo has grown enough to attract exceptional animators like Jason Heaton.  A Cincinnati native and St. Xavier graduate, Heaton planned on attending the Ringling College of Art and Design initiated by the pleas of his art teacher senior year.  Before this, he had hoped become a director or possibly a teacher.  After this somewhat surprising turn of events, Heaton settled in at Ringling to study computer animation, an area he never became very passionate about until a moment of clarity late in his college career when he realized that what he created in school would be determining his job in just a few years.  Though he busted his butt to put out great stuff, Heaton came to another change: he decided to take up storyboarding.  In just one summer, his best friend Stan – who went on to work for Oscar winning studios Moonbot and Pixar – taught Jason the process.  Because he had no portfolio for that department however, Heaton found it difficult to get a job.  Luckily, he was hired on at Moonbot with the rest of his friends in August, 2010, when the summer interns left.  Here he had the opportunity as a CG Generalist to work on layouts, texturing, modeling, and animating for the Oscar winning short “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore,” and afterwards continued perfecting his storyboarding.  Before long, many of his friends moved out of Moonbot and on to the big names of Hollywood: Pixar, Disney, Dreamworks.  Jason left soon afterwards, returning to Cincinnati while deciding what to do next.  Here, he heard about Epipheo, and long story short, he stayed in Ohio when the studio hired him full-time as a storyboard artist.

What Heaton found attractive about Epipheo is what seems to be the studio’s root cause for success: story.  Story is the life of Epipheo, and for Jason, it is why he does what he does.  The way he animates, story is required.  “When making a video about a company’s product, you can’t just say they’re the best, that’s not what people want to hear. People care about story, and that lives on the “why” level.”  Jason’s goal is to get you to care about that ‘why’ through animation.  He describes the studio as a storytelling firm where they want to create good stories that they can plus with the visuals.  “I look for the simplest way to get you to care about this product.”

What I took away from my meeting with Jason is that drawing ability is almost a secondary skill in animation.  Of course there’s a level of ability that’s required, but that can be taught; the what, how, and why must be innate.  I am excited for the creative, original shorts Jason and his colleagues will be creating for their new epipheo.tv website, as well as their future productions for big-time businesses.  In the meantime, what can be taken away from this for anybody who hopes to enter the entertainment business is this: the heart of a production is its story, and if you can get the audience to care about the character and their individual ‘why’ factor, the rest will fall into place.

These days, everything is eventually put into animation, or at least everything has the potential to be animated.  And obviously, if done well and released to the right audience at the right time, any animated piece can become a wildly popular series.  Take, for example, the Annoying Orange videos on YouTube.  On paper, there isn’t anything seemingly attractive of an obnoxious orange with a face photoshopped over, however for some reason millions buy into it.  If something so simple and general can be turned into an animated phenomenon, think of the possibilities the established characters of comic strips in the daily newspaper have to make it big, specifically Stephan Pastis’ Pearls Before Swine.

Pastis is a new breed of comic strip author that I hope will soon rise in number and take the daily comics page in a bloodless revolution for industry dominance, standard, and control (that’s how I would picture him phrasing it).  In other words, Pastis has a style that is unique and, for the most part, rare in the comics page.  Since December 31, 2001, Pastis’ main characters Rat, Pig, Goat, Zebra, Guard Duck, and the Crocs have been adding a new, more realistic zest to the newspaper comics.  In the commentaries of his treasury books, the unconventional comic author relates many stories of angry readers accusing him of destroying the comics or ruining the integrity of the comics page.  This is because his strip is not Hi and Lois by any stretch of the imagination, rather it is more like a censored comic strip version of The Simpsons, providing controversial, witty, and occasionally darker humor.  Drugs, violence, alcohol, and cigarettes have all appeared in the strip, which is certainly a deviance from the generally innocent comics of yesteryear.  However this rejuvenating modernization is what the comics page, a dying part of the overall sinking ship of print newspapers, desperately needs.  I for one applaud Pastis for bringing his exciting strips to the otherwise boring, sold out comics page.

It is true, Pearls is like no other comic.  What needs to be recognized next is how much potential this strip has for extension into a new medium such as animation.  Pastis often will write his strips with drawn out story lines that can run for up to two weeks at a time.  For example, for two weeks the character Rat might work as a hotel concierge, insulting and rebuking guests each day in a different way.  This type of writing, which Pastis has a knack for, naturally gives way to more developed story lines that could be used to create an animated series.  Currently, RingTales, an animation production company, produces short, two minute clips on YouTube of the strip which are directly based off of the comics that Pastis has already published.  The problem with this is that the animation and dialogue are just too boring, especially if an eight minute short were to be created out of published strips.  This is best exemplified in The Charlie Brown and Snoopy Show, which would take strips that Chales Schulz had published and mash them together to create a semi-fluent story that was not all that entertaining.  What I propose is for Stephan Pastis to write out scripts specifically for seven to eight minute shorts based on the Pearls characters.  In this way, he could adapt his characters into animation, a natural transition for them based on the situations and structure they currently have established in the three paneled strips.  Who knows, before long it could turn into a television show, as I see it has the potential to become, and wouldn’t we all then have some fun watching Rat smack around Pig in both print and animation!