Saturday, October 22, 2016

Branding: When is Enough Enough?

Belle returns as Emma Watson in a live action "Beauty and Beast"
retelling, while Mogli gets realistic in the" Jungle Book."

When I was a clean-up animator on Mulan, I experienced the magic and innovation that Disney Animation was so good at bringing to their latest feature slate.

Still rolling in "Lion King" money by 1997, Disney had little box office competition and existed in their own bubble.  The halls of Feature Animation Florida were lined with stunning masterpieces of visual development and model sheets that made crossing the building a sensory zenith. Everyone inside was drinking the Kool-Aid, even when competitors like DreamWorks, Blue Sky, WB and Sony were trying to jump on the hand-drawn animation bandwagon. It was a bright spot that everyone expected to last forever.

The Disney Legacy of Hand-Drawn Fortunes
Where Walt's “Snow White” and subsequent films took decades to break even, Disney was leading the industry with handsome profits from their revitalized hand-drawn division, propelled by "Beauty and the Beast and it's Oscar nomination for best Picture.

Disney brings the Renaissance in a "Quasi-something" success.

The reigning champion of 2D animated films, Disney could afford to take risks outside the fairy tale box while exploring new technology with 3D partner Pixar. Groundbreaking 3D features like “Toy Story” fuelled Disney’s appetite for more, making the climate receptive to non-fairy tales like “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “Hercules.”

Mulan and Tarzan were epic 2D masterpieces. Subsequent releases like the 3D “Bug’s Life” and “Toy Story 2” were successful distractions from the poor performance of 2D features like “Fantasia 2000” (2D and 3D) and “Dinosaur” (half CG, half live-action).

All Hail the CG Cash Cow
The next four years contained twice as many releases, including staggering receipts from “Monsters Inc.” and “Finding Nemo.” Mixed results from 2D releases like “The Emperors New Groove,” “Atlantis” and “Treasure Planet” couldn’t justify the modest success that 2D “Lilo and Stitch” would bring. In early 2004, Disney halted all 2D operations and would focus on the “sure-fire” prospect of 3D animation. Executives claimed that “2D was dead”, as they planned to take back the market share that DreamWorks and Blue Sky had earned from 3D.  For a business answerable to profit and stockholders, some may argue it was the only way to go.

Quirky, off-beat "Lilo and Stitch" charmed audiences and critics.

It took Disney a long time to remember how to get it right. 

Before masterpieces like “Tangled, “Wreck in Ralph,” and hits like “Frozen,” Disney (and audiences) plodded painfully through CG features like “Meet The Robinsons,” and “Chicken Little.” Pixar’s “Cars,” was unwatchable. “Wall-E” and “Ratatouille” were hit-or-miss, and foreshadowed the pretentiousness of “Brave.”

My 3-and-a-half year old liked "Meet the Robinsons"
while I could barely sit through it.

To gain future permanence, Disney has resorted to branding itself to death.  There are more Toy Story sequels on the way. “Cars,” “Cars 2,” “Planes,” “Boats,” and “Skateboards” are close behind.  Disney Princesses are starring in TV series, sharing all ethnicities and all sizes to speak to every demographic on earth. Animated classics like Snow White and Cinderella and Jungle Book are remade as live action, fractured fairy tales, appealing to a new generation.

No stone has been left unturned to reach out and expand Disney's audience. Playing it safe and predictable can only go so far, though.

A Long, Long Time Ago, in a Galaxy Far, Far Away,
the only thing the script could imagine was another Death Star. 

Lucasfilm and the Marvel Money Machine
Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm and Marvel brought a new meaning to marketing.
We are assured a new SW movie every year. "The Force Awakes" is the first SW entry to have a female protagonist, and it won’t be the last. “Rogue One” has another female lead in a prequel to the original SW (but taking place after the second trilogy). Ugh! Amidst these films, the Death Star plays a prominent role. Disney, Lucasfilm – whoever is listening: ENOUGH of the DEATH STAR ALREADY!  You would think with a billion characters in the Star Wars universe the studio would tread new ground come up with a new idea. Sheesh!

We've also seen several animated CG kids television series: “Star Wars: The Clone Wars,” “Star Wars Rebels,” and a plethora of Lego Star Wars toys, replete with animated webisodes. Toys R Us has an isle dedicated to Star Wars merchandise, and Disney Hollywood Studios has remodeled its theme park to emphasize the SW experience.

 Lego Star Wars are the popular kid on the block. 

Is branding to death a good thing? Or is it a surefire way of diluting the integrity of a product?

Look at Marvel, who started trivializing their comic book characters years before Disney bought them. How many “Spider-Man” titles is Marvel publishing now? There are several Spider-men wearing the mask, both male and female, present and future tense. Can anyone keep track of The Avengers books? New Avengers, Uncanny Avengers, Young Avengers, Great Lakes Avengers, Secret Avengers, and Avengers Go To College (I made-up that last one!).

Will the real Spider-Man please stand up (before I barf)?

They’ve penetrated the Marvel kids market with “Super Hero Squad” and Marvel Max for adult content. The Marvel movies are a mega-monolith of licensing expansion and profit. Marvel has furthered their reach expanding into Netflix with binge-worthy series like “Daredevil” and “Jessica Jones.” ABC’s “Marvel Agents of Shield” airs in the prime time family slot. The live-action productions that have been inspired by the classic comic titles are now so successful, that they are, in turn - driving the comic book content.

Brand New…Again
Forging new territory is part of what makes things exciting. We love better products. But let's not overdue it. Stop reincarnating the “DC Comics” Universe, as done in the recent “DC 52” super hero titles. Superman is still Superman, with or without red tights. Aquaman is blond with no beard, folks, let’s keep him that way. Batman is getting more miserable and grim every day, no matter where you meet him, with costumes running the gamut from black armor to grey rubber and back again. And DC has released a cartoon and toy line up called “Super Hero Girls” aimed at capturing the school girl market.

 DC Comics "Super Hero Girls" take no prisoners as they
infiltrate the school girl market.

Stop, Apple. Please.
Only the future will tell how much brand saturation consumers and audiences can stand. Although I love my Mac, I am tired of Mac this, Mac that, Mac the other thing. How many more OSX system updates do I need to stay compatible with Facebook or LinkedIn? Soon I will have no alternative but to update my entire hardware and software packages to stay in step with the industry. My iPhone 4S still works fine, thanks.

The iPhone 4S is as sophisticated a phone as I need. 

Adobe, take note. Do I really need the latest Photoshop iteration? The one I have has served me well in painting digital storyboards and illustrations. To get the latest Storyboard Pro, Adobe Illustrator, Maya, Final Cut, Cinema 4d, Final Draft, Microsoft Word and Office, how much do I need to earn? A lot, I think. Which makes it more frustrating to make a living doing what I love.

Back to Basics
I’m a ravenous geek and fan-boy at heart. In a radical detour, I've lately developed a habit after morning school drop-off. I bust out my watercolor sets to practice the “master's medium” amidst the nature preserves in Westchester. I can study and paint the most beautiful trees in New York while learning this evasive medium. Despite all the frenetically-paced myriad branding in Show Business, Advertising, Publishing and Social Media, the simplicity of a brush, water, a rag and a block of watercolors is helping restore my sanity temporarily, and revitalizing my soul to withstand the next Apple update, Disney trend, or female Spider-person. 

Friday, September 30, 2016

My Italian Parent's German Stereo: More Memories than Music

My parents vintage Emud Radio Phono Console Model 932,
made in 1962 from the German manufacturer.
With the passing of my father earlier this year, my family has been going through his possessions, many of which are loaded with sentimental value. One item in particular that I wish I could find a good home for is my parent's Vintage Emud Radio Stereo Model 932.

Known affectionately as "the black stereo" or "your father's stereo," the Emud has been a family fixture since before I was born. I did a little research on Emud while preparing it for it's eBay auction. 

Manufactured in 1963, my parents bought the "Emud Model 932" in J.C. Penney where it was distributed from Delmonico International. Emud (Ernst Mästling Ulm) is a German brand renowned for manufacturing inexpensive radios. They established the company in 1911, began radio production 1923. They were one of the oldest radio manufacturers in Germany. After rebuilding the ruins of their factory after WW2, the company built and made almost everything under it's own roof. They began to export 25% of their business to other countries, and in later years put too much emphasis on their export to the US. The company closed in 1972, largely due to their unwillingness to partner with other manufacturers. (source:

Monarch Turntable or "Record Changer UA12" as it's called in the owner's manual.
The turntable inside the cabinet is a Monarch Record Changer UA12 manufactured by Birmingham Sound, England, and I believe the only part that is not made in Germany. It still plays with beautiful sound.

If I had the room and lived in a house like normal people, I would most likely keep this gem for sentimental value. Typically I am not so sentimental, but some things are hard to part with, especially when they remind me of dear departed family. 

The Emud console has a life of it's own.
The Short Wave feature worked at one time, although I don't know if it still operates. I used to picture scenarios of WW2 Allied intelligence on the other side, broadcasting code messages in different languages from all over the world. Identifying each language was a mind-bender for me. The world sounded bigger than any map could explain to a young kid whose world was GI Joe's and Baseball. 

One of the first memories I have of this bright and shiny piece of standout furniture, is the white buttons  on the console. Five or six buttons, I think, which made a strikingly loud "Cha-Ching!" each time I pressed them. I recall enough to know that before I could talk the sound and mechanics of pressing these buttons fascinated me. Pressing one at at time wasn't enough. I had to press two or three at once and see what would happen. Needless to say, I was admonished for breaking the function of these, and my father sternly reminded me as I grew older that I need to not "play with the buttons, you will break them again. To fix them is expensive."

Mom with my Dad in the early days.
Wow. I am surprised that a few years later he let me play my Beatles catalogue on it when he wasn't home. I had my appendix removed around my 11th birthday, and the first activity I performed when returning from a week in the hospital was to play on the Emud the five Beatles Albums I received as birthday gifts.

That's the first time I heard Sgt. Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour, the Yellow Submarine soundtrack, and boy was I mystified. I could relate to the Mystery Tour with gems like "Hello Goodbye" and "Penny Lane," but "Within You Without You" and the "Sgt. Pepper" intro were not what I expected from my favorite Liverpudlians. 

Tosca to Sgt. Pepper: My first listen was on the Emud
Perhaps the most personal memory for me was sitting in front of the stereo with my dad, lights turned low, listening to broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera and the Italian Soccer games from Europe. The hush that came over me was one that speaks of the intimacy a father and son may experience when fishing on lake together for the first time. The Master explains, while the student, with empty cup, listens. That's what it was like for me, as my dad would translate the legendary Puccini opera's and lyrics into English. My knowledge of opera, minimal as it is, stems from those sessions. In addition, listening to the Italian soccer scores taught me to count from 1 to 10 in Italian. 

The canvas covered speakers still emit a deep, rich sound.
I'm not sure if I will gain anything monetarily from selling this stereo. Just researching the history of Emud has taken me back to a happy time in my life. Any chance that I can share that sense of wonder, fascination, and closeness with my own kids in my own way - or for that matter, share that feeling with anyone who relishes new discoveries as a child does - is a gain that money cannot buy.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Got the Interview? Now Get the Job!

You’ve got the experience, you’ve got the skills, you’ve got the interview. Now get the Job.

If you are fortunate enough to get an interview, that means something in your resume and experience leapt out at the HR representative. If you know what that star item is, you’re off to a good start. Be it a full time position, freelance role, or contract assignment, the interview is your opportunity to follow that momentum and see how you might add instant value to the organization.

Do your homework
Before you approach a prospective employer, do your research. Know the company’s history and strengths. Read about the founders, the CEO, leadership structure, etc. Study their products and evaluate their market impact. Is their stock suffering over the last year or two? Are they the leader in what they do? How do you think this company would benefit from your skill and experience? In addition, what technology are they utilizing to get results? What partnerships have they formed and what new markets are they breaking into?

Doing your homework will give you plenty of talking points in your interview. You will also be well equipped and less nervous for your shot at the title. You will form a concise reason as to WHY you want to work for them.  If they ask “Where do you want to be in five years?” “In ten years?” and “What is your ideal job?,” you better have good answers. Your research will enrich your responses and paint you as an interesting candidate. By doing your homework on the most relevant points, you will make a good impression.

Ask the Right Questions
Based on your homework results, you are prepared to ask good questions. What does the company hope to achieve by hiring you? What do they think your biggest challenge will be as a newbie? Is the team eager to have the position filled? What kind of reception would you get if you started work tomorrow?

I once got hired in a key leadership position, but was dismayed to learn upon my first day that the team was skeptical of change. They felt a new team leader would amount to nothing in contrast with the long autocratic history that governed their daily tasks.  Gaining their trust was an uphill struggle. If I had known of this atmosphere before I accepted the offer, I might have prepared some strategies to galvanize the team and replace unproductive pipelines,

Asking the right questions will not only give you the information you need to assess your effectiveness, but will clarify to your employer that you are a forward-thinking, clear-headed mature candidate. Skip “Where’s the coffee machine?” in favor of “Would it be possible to meet some of the team?” or “Who would I report to”?”  

Another area to define is your employer’s expectations.  Do they expect you to bully your way into your new role, or do they prefer you forge alliances with key colleagues? Are they prepared to publicly back you up and give you the support needed to make their directives a reality? How you are woven into the group can make a big difference between a great first year and a terrible one.

There may be an opportunity to mention the latest tech you’ve read about in the trades. What kind of version control software are they using to manage assets? Is their compliance software off-the-shelf or proprietary? You might inquire if they’ve considered using “xyz” technique to improve accuracy. When your prospective employer scores your interview, they will account for the relevance of your questions.

Know Thy Value           
How much are you worth?

Your worth comes down to two things: How much value you can bring to the company to make their business a more prosperous entity, and how much you deserve to get paid. Your interview will probably breach the daunting topic of salary. “What kind of salary are you looking for?” they may ask. This one is a doozie. If you respond with a number that is much too high, you stand to look foolish if you still want the gig and are willing to accept a much lower offer. Go too low, and you look as if you undervalue your contribution.

When asked any salary question, have an answer ready.  Unless you are damn sure what they industry standard salary is for this position, you may want to redirect the inquiry with something like “I’m flexible within the going industry rate, but it depends on the big picture. Salary is important to me, but so are opportunity and a feeling of accomplishment.”

If possible, be first to ask them what their budget is to see if they are even considering a reasonable number. If their figure is far too low, but you sense they like you, you might be able to itemize each of the proposed job responsibilities and get them to reflect on the veracity of their pay scale. You could be the one candidate who proves they need a higher salary range to attract top talent.

Thank You and Follow Up
Don’t forget this important step. If you think this position is everything you want, say so. Let them know that you are most definitely interested in joining the team. Mention your availability date and that they can contact you anytime if they require further info for making a decision.

As soon as possible send an email that says how much you appreciated the interview and would love to discuss the position further. Chances are you met with at least three employees in addition to the HR rep. If you were able to get their contact info from their business cards, drop them a short line of thanks as well. Now that you have garnered enough background on the position, it doesn’t hurt to add a short sentence or two as a reminder of what value you bring to their team.

Impact Mark
You’ve learned a bit about the employer. You’ve clarified the details. You may have a good idea where you will fit in, who you will work with, and the project being considered. Now it’s time to go outside the conventional interview process.

It’s time to leave your Impact Mark.

When I interviewed for an Art Director position at EA Sports, I knew that EA wanted to merge cinematic storytelling with their blockbuster sports games like Madden NFL and NCAA Football. They had met me previously and were attracted to the drama and camera angles in my storyboard portfolio.

When I walked into my interview, I sat in a conference room of twelve staffers. Questions went all around, some great, some canned. I had my own share of questions, especially since I was unfamiliar with the mysterious technical processes of video games. Most of the staff seemed unreadable. After getting a complete studio tour from the senior Art Director, I walked away with uncertainty. For an interview that lasted over three hours, I couldn’t tell if they were or weren’t interested.

How could I add value to this extremely mysterious group of individuals? How would I get a second chance to talk to them?

In the next few days, I replayed the interview in my head. They had spent a lot of time showing me their current NASCAR racing game. I was sure they needed some art leadership in that area.

I needed a NASCAR related follow-up idea that would leave an impact – what I now refer to as my IMPACT MARK.  I had recently spent an afternoon drawing at the Richard Petty Racetrack, designing drawings that felt like an actual NASCAR race in progress.

I had been amused when I noticed the Richard Petty track sold huge, worn out NASCAR tires as souvenirs for 5 bucks apiece! I can’t emphasize how big these tires were. I’m not sure if they sold any, as they had stacks of them outside. Any tourist would need a small fortune to ship one home, but I could buy one, throw it in my trunk, and use it my promotion scheme.

Using my PETTY drawings to build a portfolio, I placed the book inside a small tool kit, which I suspended inside the tire using bungee cords, bolts, and a black mesh netting to seal the tire on one side. On the front of the case I emblazoned the message “Put Me in the Drivers Seat to Complete Your Winning Team.”

To be honest, I wasn’t sure if my package would be a welcomed delivery. What if the Senior AD was irritated that an enormous rubber, metal, plastic and paper monstrosity appeared on his desk? What if he hated the smell of rubber and despised the cumbersome weight of my showpiece? I hesitated for a minute, but with the encouragement of my wife and some friends, I realized that the idea was too exciting to pass up.

I hired a messenger to hand-deliver it to the Senior Art Director’s desk that Monday morning. Within a few hours I got a phone call with an amused voice on the other end. “You sure know how to make an impression,” said the Senior Art Director. “We’d like to have you in for another interview.” My Impact Mark worked!

Two more interviews later I was hired, and soon the Tire Portfolio story was spread around EA like a folk tale. Many people heard rumors that “Someone got hired because they sent a “Big Tire” to the Senior Art Director.

I smiled inside because I knew that it wasn’t just any tire – it was my IMPACT MARK.

What Impact Mark would make a lasting impression on your next prospective employer?

Expect to Hear from Them
There is nothing like a sense of certainty to carry with you throughout the days following your interview. You are confident that your preparations - research, questions, value, and impact mark - will get you an offer in the near future, or at the least, prepare for that eventuality.  

When you get the call and the job offer, be prepared with an answer. Have the answer rehearsed so it covers both a good offer and a bad offer. Is the offer final? Are they open to negotiations? Maybe you ask for a signing bonus or extra stock options to sweeten the deal, or maybe an earlier performance review.  They might ask for something in return, maybe by starting earlier than originally discussed or by working a few weekends on the house. Remember they are making an investment in you, perhaps as much as you are investing your future in them.

To sum it up, consider your top choice, do your research, ask better questions, clarify your contribution, establish your worth, say thank you, and leave your Impact Mark on the experience. Will you get an offer? I can’t promise. But each of these steps will rocket you closer to the role of a lifetime!

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Story Demo "Tarzan and the Lost Empire" with Pencil and Photoshop

In this demo, I illustrate something a bit different from the normal advertising assignments. I created a scene from E.R. Burrough's book "Tarzan and the Lost Empire.' I discuss some techniques I use in Photoshop, but mostly talk about the craft of making pictures that tell a story. Inventing visuals that aren't described in the source material is what makes story illustration so appealing. They complement and enhance the narrative in a wondrous way. 

Monday, August 8, 2016

Windsor Newton Watercolor Travel Kit

Watercolor painting from my trip to Lasdon Gardens, using Windsor Newton Watercolor on 140 lb., cellulose acid-free Cartiera Magnani paper. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

"The Legend of Tarzan" Arrives in Full Swing

"The Legend of Tarzan" hits a new cinematic benchmark for Tarzan. It's reverent in the right places, with probably  the best live-action depiction of Tarzan - one that is closer in tone to ERB's literary work than any other interpretation. 

The dialogue in the script plays a bit simple, but what the script lacks in sophistication it makes up for in performances and film making.  The camera takes it's time with a slow reveal of Africa, showing us lush landscapes, sultry jungles, swooping tracking shots, and 3D character animation. 

Alexander Skarsgard is a fine Tarzan, portrayed a bit more modest than his literary version. Burrough's Tarzan was commanding among man or beast. His superior intellect and jungle-conditioned strength and agility surfaced at every opportunity.  In the film, Tarzan seems less dominant among the apes, as evidenced when a rival gorilla kicks the tarmangani out of him during the film's big boss-battle.  Plausibility seems to be the big intent.  

However, the filmmakers paid a compliment to Burroughs, writing Skarsgard's Tarzan as a man of few words, the way Burroughs intended.  You can sense the backstory in Tarzan's brooding silences, his pensive soul, and his maturing acceptance of civilization's capacity for greed and violence. He appears to commune with animals without speaking. Unfortunately, the filmmakers missed a rich opportunity to demonstrate Tarzan speaking to the apes in their native tongue, a scene that always astounded me as a reader. I was left with the impression that Tarzan is more the "Friend of the Jungle," instead of  "Lord of the Jungle."  Nevertheless, the film strength is in it's protagonist. Tarzan leaps, jumps, climbs, swings, swims  and fights with the grace of a gazelle and the strength of a bull ape.

Burroughs had a gift for introducing new characters in his novels and making us care for them in a page or two. In "The Legend of Tarzan," the secondary characters are not as memorable.

(Margot Robbie) forces an overly-simplified American accent as Jane, probably because there is nothing remarkable about her dialogue. I couldn't help feeling that a production of this caliber could have been enhanced if it reflected the pronunciations and vocabulary most of us associate with American aristocrats of the late 1800's.  Instead of sounding something like "Tarzan my dear, I insist you let me accompany you to Africa. I've endured jungle hardships before and there shall be no exception for me this time,"  we get the lowest common denominator of television series dialogue, written to advance the story quickly instead of expounding on it. Jane's lines are short and sweet when she says "Africa is where I grew up. I'm going with you."  Jane has appeal, but deserves more. 

Samuel L. Jackson is out-of-breath as an American emissary and former Civil War freedom fighter who wants Tarzan to help expose Belgian King Leopold's tyrannical intent to colonize the Congo. It's easy to relish his performance as he provides comic relief and lucidity to the precarious expedition, all the while maintaining that Tarzan is the best hope at squashing the looming invasion. The jibes between he and Tarzan are a hoot. 

Christoph Waltz plays the villainous Lt. Rom with his usual disquieting menace, one we have come to expect in the wake of his roles in "Inglorious Basterds." Like Jane, he doesn't have enough script to play with, and we're waiting for tension to build as if Tarantino wrote his lines. He is perpetually creepy as villain, but when he whips his rare African silk rosary beads into a lariat to ensnare muscle bound warriors, dinner guests and an unassuming Tarzan, it felt like a gimmick unworthy of a Tarzan story.

I detected no racist overtones in "The Legend of Tarzan," despite the knee-jerk reaction of some critics to accuse it of such. This is an adventure where Tarzan fights to save Jane, the Congo tribe, and the future autonomy of his African homeland from the crushing enslavement of European colonization. Tarzan plays the savior role in all his literary adventures, appearing like a flash of lighting to save an innocent prey from a hungry lion or other attack.  The "bronze god" has easily maintained worldwide hero status, not because he is a superior specimen of a white man, but because despite his near naked appearance and predilections for jungle habits, Tarzan combines his animal conditioning, super strength and superior intellect to preserve the innocence of his adoptive homeland from those who wish to exploit it. 

Like Burroughs Tarzan novels, the weakest of his stories are still great reads. Similarly, the imperfect script of "The Legend of Tarzan" still allows solid entertainment, with the focus on portraying a fascinating and substantial Tarzan.  If audiences give Tarzan a chance and see this film, there is a strong likelihood he will be around at least another hundred years. 

Monday, July 18, 2016

WWE SummerSlam at Madison Square Garden!

I recently worked with World Wrestling Entertainment on an upcoming project in development. It's always a pleasure to team with a great group of professionals,  creatives who love what they do and do it with a smile. I've always admired the stellar showmanship of the WWE, the larger than life stories, and the thrilling excitement that the athletes bring to the ring.

Attending SummerSlam with my family was a blast. My daughter experienced Madison Square Garden in all it's bling, while my nephew was jumping out of his seat. My cousin, who is a life-long WWE fan, joined us to explain some of the history behind the match-ups.
It's tough being mistaken for John Cena's body double, but I managed. :)

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Hollywood Screams: The Bad Guys are Us

In case you haven’t noticed, Hollywood’s’ latest villain behind the crime of the century is not some mustache-twirling rascal, not a bald megalomaniac living in a volcano or a sophisticated thief out to rob Fort Knox.

Instead, the antagonists in today’s blockbusters masquerade as exemplary and distinguished role models.  While our hero has been pursuing suspect after suspect, the real engineer behind the inciting incident turns out to be a person considered beyond reproach - their best friend, superior officer, trusted confidant or respected colleague.

Leo G. Carroll and Ingrid Bergman in
the final shots of Hitch's 1945 "Spellbound"
It’s not a new idea at all. For example, Hitchcock’s “Spellbound” entertained moviegoers with the case of an amnesiac doctor (Gregory Peck) suspected of murder.  In the last sequence the esteemed hospital director (Leo G. Carroll) is exposed as the real murderer. In “Touch of Evil,” director Orson Wells plays an untarnished detective caught falsifying criminal evidence.  When another officer investigates him, Wells conspires with a gangster to destroy him. Even Dirty Harry in “Magnum Force” finds incriminating proof that his Lieutenant is head of a murderous gang of police vigilantes.

Why has this once unorthodox twist become a common fallback solution for today’s hero/villain dynamic? The answer is obvious - the film industry is afraid to offend anyone, isolate audience demographics or exclude world markets that will diminish box office returns.

In the wake of Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, Edward Snowden’s defection, and Nixon’s’ Watergate - Hollywood is showing us that we habitually miscalculate the ones in whom we place our trust. Since we’ve all been chumped into voting for them, we readily join in their public vilification.

Would Bond films with a Chinese Communist villain make money overseas, never mind even be released in China? If Bruce Willis stops a Muslim terrorist organization then surely the “Die Hard” filmmakers are anti-Muslim.

This year's "Captain America: Civil War." It's the Shield vs. the Shell-Head.
Marvel Studios aren’t taking any chances. “Captain America: The First Avenger” didn’t so much battle Nazi Germany in WW2 as he did their fictional cousins of HYDRA.  In the sequel “Captain America: Winter Soldier”, the descendants of Hydra have infiltrated government and intelligence organizations at every level to threaten the free world. Finally, this year’s “Captain America: Civil War” pits Avenger vs. Avenger in a war of principles.  We sense their rivalry will be short-lived, but better to distract us with colorful hero against hero than by battling real-world threats like Boko Haram or Al Shabaab.

"Batman vs. Superman: Death of the Giant Clam"
Similarly framed is Warner Brothers “Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice.”  Our iconic heroes square off with unbridled fury until they realize the bigger problem is Lex Luthor.

Is a giant clam swallowing Robin too much to ask for in today’s market?  Adam West would race to the bat-poles - if he only knew who the bad guy was supposed to be!

The busiest offender of this “good-bad guy” gimmick is the Bond Franchise, starting with 1995’s “Goldeneye.” Bond’s fights a former agent, now a mastermind intent on controlling a powerful military satellite. It’s blue-collar government agent vs. blue-collar evil genius.  

Javier Bardem threatens Bond as ex-agent Silva in "Skyfall"
About as shapeless as the moon.
“Skyfall” trudges further, with bitter ex-agent Silva seeking revenge on M for disavowing his existence amidst enemy torture.  To justify his motivation, Silva pulls out his dentures, revealing the Quasimodo-like disfiguration caused by Mi6’s dental plan.

Donald Pleasance looms as Blofeld in "You Only Live Twice"
while Christoph Waltz as Blofeld is lost in "Spectre"
Not so fast, Mr. Bond. In last year’s “Spectre,” Bond learns the culprit responsible for incidents spanning the last four movies is actually his foster brother!?!?  Worse, he’s changed his name to “Blofeld” (really?)! But that’s not as scary as his master plan to install and oversee customized surveillance systems for an unprincipled shadow cell of the British government.  It would have been simpler to make him head of the IRS.

Gert Frobe as Goldfinger (1965).
Nothing like a mint julep after a hard days' laser surgery.
Goldfinger, do you expect me to watch? No Mr. Bond, I expect you to buy a ticket and die!

“Mission Impossible” drinks the same screenwriting kool-aide, as Tom Cruise outraces more than one government official complicit in heinous activities. But it’s “Star Trek: Into Darkness” which retreads sacred ground when the Federation’s Admiral is exposed trying to start an intergalactic war.  It wouldn’t be the first time a Federation official turned bad in Star Trek canon, but when a movie franchise releases a mega-picture every four years, can we get more face-value villains like the original Khan?

Empathetic villains are great, although not always necessary. Replace the “twisted secret service agent” out to avenge his enlisted son’s death by destroying the Presidential Palace in “White House Down” with a plain, old, rotten Wicked Witch now and then.

The Frightful Four: Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber ("Die Hard");
Lee Marvin as Liberty Valance (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance);
Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West ("The Wizard of Oz");
Jack Palance as Jack Wilson ("Shane")
Baddies played by Lee Marvin, Jack Palance and James Cagney all brought extra dimension to their ruthlessness. One of the richest villains of the action genre was Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) in “Die Hard.” We loathe Hans instantly because of his unabashed cruelty and greed. In fact, the setup is so basic that the script spells it out for us. “I’m the good guy, you’re the bad guy, Hans!”

Unfortunately for the near future of cinema, real-life terrorists, rogue nations, dictators, religious extremists, and other vile scourges will be ignored.
If we must consider the looming threats to peace and harmony, Hollywood asks that we point to ourselves, gaze into the mirror of the movie screen and see that our worst threats are not Hitler, Kim Jong Il or ISIS, but the individuals and groups we trust our welfare to.  The baddies have become us.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Tarzan Triumphant - Time Has Not Diminished the Jungle Lord's Reign

Dust jacket illustration for the
first edition of "Tarzan of the Apes"
If you haven't read Edgar Rice Burroughs “Tarzan” novels, you don't know what you're missing. The novels are works of art. Reading them, it is easy to understand why for the past 100 years the entertainment industry has continually reinvented Tarzan for different media.

First published in 1912, “Tarzan of the Apes” proved so popular with readers that Burroughs wrote a total of 24 Tarzan novels, spanning into the 1940’s.

Despite the movie, television, comic book, syndicated strip, cartoon and other incarnations of Tarzan, the most rewarding portrayal of the Jungle Lord remain in Burroughs’ original material.

There is a level of detail, insight, and reflection that immerse the reader in the Jungles of Africa, where Tarzan, Jane, N’kima and the Waziri tribe encounter new mysteries and civilizations. Burroughs’ Tarzan transcends a fictional character, so convincing is he embellished as a force of nature.

My pen, ink and charcoal study from "Tarzan and the Lost Empire."
Orphaned on the coast of Africa, John Clayton, Lord Greystoke is raised by apes in ignorance of his human heritage.  Under the rigors of jungle hardships and customs, Tarzan (“white skin” in ape language), develops physical attributes and abilities rivaling man and beast. As he matures, Tarzan’s intellect enables him to progress beyond the limits of his anthropoid family. Although eventually recognizing his ancestry as heir to the Greystoke title, Tarzan remains most at home in the wilderness, sleeping in the "crotch of a tree" or navigating the "upper terraces" of the jungle in his own fashion. Adopting the victory cry of the "bull ape," Tarzan proclaims his superiority as “Lord of the Jungle.”  

Film and TV

Filmation's Tarzan Lord of the Jungle was a staple
of my Saturday mornings in the 70's.
Probably my first real opportunity to embrace Tarzan was with Filmation’s Saturday morning cartoon. Tarzan was stoic, athletic, and unlike most live-action adaptations, he spoke fluent English.

Christopher Lambert's performance in
"Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes,"
was the most chimp-like of all. The first half of the film
is captivating; the second, a snooze fest.
A pivotal adaptation was the 1984 film “Greystoke, The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes.” The epic landscapes and immersive jungle sequences were memorable, including scenes highlighting Tarzan's foster ape-mother and the unfriendly native tribes who attack jungle explorers.  

Disney's "Tarzan" is one of the best interpretations
of the Jungle Lord to hit the big screen.
I was honored to work on the 1999 “Tarzan” film with Walt Disney Feature Animation. Artistic and technical breakthroughs were combined with exceptional storytelling, modified in places for family appeal. I never had an opportunity to animate Tarzan, instead assigned to the bumbling Dr. Porter. Still, it was a privilege to have contributed to this classic Disney film.

The greatest illustrators of the last century have had a hand in visualizing Burroughs’ Tarzan. Instead of naming every artist and how significant their contribution was, I’ll mention three of my favorites.

Hogarth's Tarzan is full of introspection and symbolism, with muscles to boot.

Burne Hogarth did two stints drawing the Sunday and daily strips starting in 1937 and leaving in the 50's. He published two Tarzan graphic novels in the early 70's. I was always impressed with his sensitive portrayal of Tarzan; He ponders the meaning of life, the wonders of the universe, and the superiority that man has over the animal kingdom. Hogarth’s anatomy lessons would become a big influence on me as a young art student.

Master storyteller Joe Kubert drew the definitive "Tarzan of the Comics." 

Joe Kubert captured the DC comic book incarnation of Tarzan with his rich brush strokes, lending a unique visceral quality and mood to the narrative. Many consider Kubert’s to be the definitive illustrated version of Tarzan, and I might agree.

I can stare at Neal Adams' book covers all day.
This gem is from "Tarzan and the Lion Man."
While Kubert's mastery is undeniable, Tarzan gained ultimate stature for me with Neal Adams' mid 1970’s Ballantine book covers. I’m mesmerized by the depth and depiction of the “story moment.” Never has Tarzan seemed so relevant in regards to the source material as he is on these covers.  Adams presents us with a god-like superman, bursting off the page amidst an orchestra of action and determination.

More Adventures

"The Legend of Tarzan arrives in theaters July, 2016. Fingers are crossed.
This summer, audiences will be treated to another Tarzan feature film, “The Legend of Tarzan.” It remains to be seen if today’s moviegoers will embrace Tarzan’s retelling. Regardless, one can be sure that the masterworks depicted in Burroughs’s books will inspire countless interpretations and assure the Lord of the Jungle’s longevity well into next century.