Stuck inside? Already binge-watched everything on Disney+, Netflix and Amazon Prime? That makes it a perfect moment for me to review a bunch of new animation books recently submitted for my approval. Some of them I approve of very much.
Walt Disney’s Ultimate Inventor: The Genius of Ub Iwerks By Don Iwerks (Disney Editions).
You cannot be a fan of Disney without admiring the talent of Iwerks – who was at Walt’s side from the beginning, and then re-joined the studio in 1940 for 30+ years of innovations that made the movies and theme park attractions as special as they were. There is no question Iwerks was an invisible “10th Old Man” responsible for the core magic of Disney.
The book’s first 50 pages are most enjoyable as it traces Iwerks career and relationship with Walt from Kansas City to Hollywood, through the break-up in 1930, Flip The Frog, and what eventually led to Iwerks return to the Disney fold. To be honest, a lot more needs to be written and researched about the Iwerks studio in the 1930s (the Willie Whoppers, The ComiColor cartoons, Color Rhapsodies and so on). But this is a Disney book, and the focus is on an even more obscure part of Iwerks life – the technical innovations he created and pioneered behind the scenes, perfecting the art of special effects.
The majority of the book is like a catalog of Iwerks’ many achievements, told in a chronological, picture-by-picture order. The optical printers, the matte registration techniques, the camera he built to get an animal’s POV, the rear projection techniques, the sodium screen, the forced perspective sets, his innovations for WED (the theme parks) including the Circarama 360º camera and projection, the ghosts in the Haunted Mansion, the audio animatronics – to name but a few.
His son Don Iwerks (himself a Disney veteran and special effects master) writes the text (who else could?); Leonard Maltin penned an introduction, the Walt Disney Archives provided the numerous illustrations. In the end, this a necessary tome, providing another important piece to our knowledge of how the Disney studio achieved its greatness – and a tribute to the long unsung genius behind it.
The Art of Cuphead by Studio MDHR (Dark Horse)
I don’t play video games; in fact, I’ve never played Cuphead. But I was so excited for the 5 years leading up to its release and have been its biggest fan and booster (I even had a hand in getting Studio MDHR an Annie Award in 2018). Anything that helps popularize classic cartoons – especially the look and feel of 1930s Iwerks/Fleisher/Van Beuren – is okay with me.
The art and craft of this project – I’ve since been given a tour through the whole game play – is remarkable. Creators Chad and Jaren Moldenhauer – as well as writers Eli Cymet and Tyler Moldenhauer – take us through every character and setting with much behind the scenes art – much of it created by hand. Model sheets, animation art, background paintings, and models (for the “Stereo Optical” 3D backdrops) – are eye candy of the highest order.
What I really love is that this game (and now this book) introduces a younger generation to classic look of 1930s animation. As a professor of animation history at several universities in Los Angeles, this had made my job a lot easier. The creators fully acknowledge their debt to Fleischer’s Color Classics, Disney’s Silly Symphonies and Van Beuren’s Rainbow Parade cartoons. If you are a fan of Cuphead, Mugman and the various denizens of Inkwell Isle this book is a real treat. Recommended!
What Is the Story of Looney Tunes? by Steve Korte (Penguin Workshop)
It’s easy to pick on this book – it’s a 106-page paperback aimed at children. It’s part of a popular series of books (A “WhoHQ book”, a series including dozens of books that explain famous figures and subjects such as George Washington, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Jackie Chan – not to mention Batman and Walt Disney), written in a simplistic style that any child (or studio executive) can easily understand.
On the whole, the facts here are essentially correct (two of my books are cited in the bibliography – along with works by Adamson, Maltin and Solomon), but some of the details are telescoped or glossed over to highlight the overall bigger picture of the Looney Tunes story. Cartoon Research readers could nitpick this to death – Leon Schlesinger, Ed Selzer, Mel Blanc, Tex Avery and Chuck Jones in particular are given special notice.
Sadly, Friz Freleng, Bob Clampett, Robert McKimson and pretty much everyone else who made the cartoons receive no acknowledgement (Carl Stalling and Bill Melendez do get mentioned). Surprisingly, Walt Disney, Ub Iwerks, Hugh Harman and Rudolph Ising are spoken about and even appear in illustrations, specially in the early chapters which encapsulate the origins of animated cartoons (Winsor McCay gets a nod here, too).
In the later years, Cool Cat and Merlin The Magic Mouse are discussed, as are The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Movie, Roger Rabbit, Tiny Toons, Space Jam and Looney Tunes Back in Action. The final page has a nice healthy plug for the new Looney Tunes Cartoons currently in production. The book concludes with a small glossy fold-out timeline of Looney Tunes history. As I said above, this is aimed at kids and, if we are lucky, it might lead young ones wanting to learn more about Warner Bros. cartoons to bigger and better books (and blogs). Recommended only for you “completists” who have to have everything in their collection ever published about the Warner cartoons – otherwise you can leave this one for the kids.
On Animation: The Director’s Perspective Vol. 2 by Bill Kroyer and Tom Sito; Edited by Ron Diamond
This is volume two of an outstanding set of books containing smart, informative interviews with today’s top directors in the animation industry – conducted by two veteran feature animation directors who serve on the Board of Governors at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Producer Ron Diamond commissioned Bill Kroyer and Tom Sito to do 23 interviews with the biggest and best names working today. Volume 2 features Brad Bird, Henry Selick, Don Bluth, Pete Doctor, Vicky Jensen and Dean DeBlois, among others. Once again, it’s a delightful and important read. The interviewers and interviewees know each other – and it reads like you are overhearing a private chat between friends who are offering their strong opinions and inner secrets. Wanna read about Don Bluth at Filmation, Brad Bird on his mentor Milt Kahl, or Vicky Jensen making her directing debut on Baby Huey? It’s all here.
A total joy and an important document. Highly Recommended!
SHOUT OUTS and SHORT TAKES
The Animated Peter Lorre by Matthew Hahn (Bear Manor). “Now I’ve Seen Everything!” Fans of Peter Lorre – rejoice! It’s here! The book you’ve been waiting for – a 395-page filmography of all the caricatures of the legendary actor in animated cartoons. Written in a way that mixes the humor of the subject with the scholarship of a dedicated cinephile, Hahn (who previously compiled The Animated Marx Brothers) should get credit to tracking down Lorre appearances in every cartoon imaginable. The first 29 pages documents “Theatrical Lorre Cartoons” (you know, Horton Hatches The Egg”, “Hair-Raising Hare”, “Birth Of A Notion”, et al) with plot synopsis, video availability, fun facts and a “Giggle Rating”. The majority of the book following that covers TV Lorre Tunes, a chapter that covers every Ren & Stimpy episode (Ren is modeled after Lorre, after all), as well as Milton the Monster (Heebie), Secret Squirrel (Morocco Mole), Beatles cartoons, Tiny Toons… anything and everything. Chapter 3 covers animated commercials ala Lorre (think Boo Berry), Chapter 4 goes into video games. And there’s more. If this sounds like something you will enjoy… I guarantee you WILL enjoy it! Others might stay away. “It’s scary in there!”
The Animated Voice (Volume Two): Interviews with Voice Actors by W. R. Miller (Pulp Hero Press) – My buddy Bob Miller has been doing interviews and chronicling animation voice actors for years. This is his second volume in an ongoing series on the subject, and he covers it superbly. Here he features the superstars of classic animation with archival interviews with Mel Blanc (by Alan Light in 1975), June Foray (by Shel Dorf in 1980) his own with Lucille Bliss and Jeff Bergman. Miller also talks to many current practitioners of anime voice dubbing – and two feature directors (Carlos Saldana and Mamoru Hosoda) about how they work with their actors. Former Warner Bros. Animation producer and voice actress Kathy Helppie provides an introduction.
The Art of Onward by Drew Taylor (Chronicle Books) – Pixar’s latest release is a very entertaining film. It’s the story of a relationship between brothers who, in this case, happen to be elves in a world of fantasy that has lost its magic. It’s available free on Disney+ and well-worth watching during the current quarantine. And after you watch it, you’ll really appreciate this latest “Art Of” book that takes a deep dive into the pre-production process. These books are actually important documents that will preserve for all time who did what on these films. Artists Grant Alexander, Maria Yi, Chris Sasaki and Matt Nolte and others shine in their examples of character design. Paintings, layouts, model sheets… you know the score. Good movie, good book.