Audio Commentary Commentation: Who Framed Roger Rabbit

I think for many people, there are some films they saw in theaters, that just make them unable to forget ‘their first time.’

I was not of age to see Star Wars when it was released in 1977, but a decade later, there was one film I saw on the big-screen, that just blew my 8-year-old mind.

At the time, Who Framed Roger Rabbit’s creation was a risky venture between Walt Disney Pictures and Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment company, that combined animated characters within a live-action film-noir story.

The production was a neverending headache for director Robert Zemeckis. Having just come off of the whirlwind production of Back to the FutureRoger would be a production that would take several years, and be made in a number of different locales around the world.

When it was all over, many breathed a sigh of relief when the film came out in 1988, and became one of that year’s biggest hits.

Growing up, I was often on the lookout for anything associated with the film’s production. While a making-of book was never released, there were some other items that filled me in. From a making-of article in the special effects magazine Cinefex, to the DVD release in 2003. This release not only gave images and a making-of special, but something I am always game for: an audio commentary!

The commentary featured Robert Zemeckis (director), Frank Marshall (producer), Steve Starkey (associate producer), Jeff Price (screenwriter), Peter Seaman (screenwriter), and Ken Ralston (the film’s visual effects supervisor). Each of the men in the special audio track, talks about their experience on the film, and given the film is over 30 years old this year, I thought I’d highlight a few of the things they talked about.

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Historical Ties to the Past

Though it isn’t a facet of all of his films, director Robert Zemeckis seems to enjoy playing around in the past, and sometimes having his film’s characters influence what was happening, or encounter past historical events.

His debut film I Wanna Hold Your Hand had a number of fictional teen characters trying to see the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. For the film 1941 (which he and his friend Bob Gale wrote for Steven Spielberg), their fictional characters encountered real-life figures in a panic on the streets of Los Angeles.

Some may assume the encounter with animated characters in 1947 Hollywood was the big connection to the past, but buried within the film, was a connection to a real-life event that affected the city of Los Angeles’ transportation system:

Peter Seaman: Actually, the Red Car (Trolley) part of the movie came from-I don’t know if you remember Bob (Zemeckis), but a meeting with you and (Steven) Spielberg. Jeff (Price) and I were in there, and Spielberg said there was no reason to make this movie just to match animation/live-action. There had to be a real story so, we came up with the Red Car plot, which is a real one, where the tire companies and auto companies conspired to get rid of the trolley cars in Los Angeles, because the car was the future.

Robert Zemeckis: That’s right, and all the freeways in Los Angeles run right along the same routes as the Red Car tracks.

When it comes to the film’s plot, most people remember Judge Doom’s plan to destroy Toontown so he could open up new land for a freeway and commercial growth, but the Red Car plot almost gets buried within the film.

It’s briefly mentioned in regards to the Cloverleaf Industries billboard (the company Doom owns) being hoisted above the Red Car depot across from Eddie’s office, to the judge admitting to Valiant that he purchased the trolley system, to ‘dismantle it.’

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A Question (mark) about the title

To some that saw the film, there probably was some confusion over it’s title. It seemed to be asking a question, and yet the title did not have a proper punctuation mark at the end.

Naturally, one of the filmmakers brought this up in conversation.

Steve Starkey: Why was there no question mark after the title of this movie, Bob (Zemeckis)?

Robert Zemeckis: Because everyone said that you don’t put question marks at-I mean, we looked at it. Yeah, it didn’t look right.

Peter SeamanThat was the most-asked question in our press interview.

Robert Zemeckis: Yeah, interesting.

Peter SeamanMade ‘us’ look bad…”the writers.”

Seaman is only joking of course. Throughout the commentary, the writers and the production crew have plenty of laughs together, and this bit gave them a chuckle.

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Missed Humor

Like some comedians doing stand-up, the film had a number of jokes and gags that just flew over the heads of the viewers.

In one scene, Eddie tells his girlfriend Dolores to go downtown, and check on the probate regarding Marvin Acme’s will. Co-writers Price and Seaman actually found a crazy way to give the explanation, a little life:

Peter Seaman: Here was the ‘semi-splainer’ scene where we had to describe the probate of the will and all that stuff. It was really dry and everything, so, we were just joking around in the office, and Steven Spielberg was in the office with us.

And he said, “Yeah, you got to explain that probate so people understand it.”

So, that’s when we said, “well, how about we say, ‘yeah, probate, my Uncle Thumper used to take big pills for his probate.’ ‘No, prostate, you idiot!'”

We were just joking around, but he said, “No, you gotta put that in the movie!”

While the joke gave Spielberg a good laugh, it got just a few chuckles at the film’s premiere. However, co-writer Jeff Price laughs on the commentary, claiming that now that everyone who saw the film has gotten older, they’d probably understand it better.

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Stop the Film!

When the film wasn’t being about Eddie Valiant trying to clear Roger’s name, it would often get very rowdy and very noisy, given the toons and what they were doing.

Much of the film showed Valiant being very annoyed with Roger’s antics, with only a scant few moments where the rabbit seemed willing to slow down, and be a little more serious.

One such moment came right after the madcap chase in Benny the Cab, where Roger and Eddie hide out in a movie theater:

Robert Zemeckis: Now this is-I think this is just really great lighting, on the toon here. This is great, and great animation and-Simon Wells animated this and I think, if I’m not mistaken, it’s the longest continuous animation scene in the movie. This shot here with Roger, and what’s nice about the animation in this is it’s just so subtle, and restrained-

Frank Marshall: And always ‘alive.’

Robert Zemeckis: And alive, yeah.

Ken Ralston: Remember this-Steven Spielberg came in and said, “I don’t care what you have to do, stop the movie if you have to, but put the rabbit and the detective in the same scene, and let them talk to each other.”

It’s notable that Zemeckis shoots this scene all in one long take, pushing in on Eddie as he tells Roger what happened to his brother, Teddy Valiant.

This is often a signature of Zemeckis’ directing, where he will often do a long camera-take, without cutting away. One can see this in the opening scene of Back to the Future, when the camera shows us all of Doc Brown’s garage-laboratory, without cutting away.

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Three Films in One

Looking back at Zemeckis’ filmography, one can see that in several of his works, he likes to mash together a number of genres. This was notably with Back to the Future, given it wasn’t just a science fiction film, but a comedy, a drama, and much more.

Near the end of the film as the commentators watch a complex scene, Zemeckis sums up just what he and the film crew were up against in putting the film together:

Robert Zemeckis: It’s three gigantic movies in one. You had a 48-minute animation movie which is, just a little under what an animated feature runs. You had a live-action period movie, with giant stunts and giant sets and vehicles and guns and all that stuff, and you had this huge special effects movie where there were, 1500 composite shots.

This same sentiment of combining things is mentioned throughout the commentary. Another notable moment is in regards to Alan Silvestri’s score, which managed to be a mixture of period-piece film noir musical cues, and the kind of crazy music as seen in animated cartoons of the time. Oftentimes, the tempo changes of the music would be too much for the film’s orchestra.

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The commentary at times does have a lot of people talking over each other, but the information gleaned from it is still something I enjoy coming back to.

Notable are some areas where the commentators discuss a number of ideas that came up during production, that were ultimately dropped.

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LJN toys image, showing a Judge Doom figure with a vulture accessory.

At one point, Baby Herman was considered to be the bad guy, and another time, Judge Doom was to have an animated pet vulture (named Voltaire), that was dropped when the filmmakers had to make cuts due to time and money.

The fact that Voltaire was part of the early drafts, could explain why when a line of Roger Rabbit “bendy” figures were released in 1988, Doom came with a vulture in his packaging.

There is even talk about the first, early test-screening of the film. Because much of the film was unfinished at the time, and since the audience had no clue just how the film was supposed to ‘work,’ the test-screening ended horribly.

Of course, looking back on the film all these years later, Roger Rabbit is still surprisingly well-done, given the time-crunch and mad dash to finish it. It ended up being director Robert Zemeckis’ third hit in a row (following Romancing the Stone and Back to the Future), and paved the way for a few Roger Rabbit cartoon shorts. However, licensing snafus between Disney and Amblin Entertainment (Spielberg’s production company) soon sidelined Roger’s career. Talk of a sequel or prequel has come up over the years (and test-footage of a CG-animation test was leaked some time ago), but it seems that it will forever be a remnant from our past.

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Scene from a Roger Rabbit sequel pitch. In this scene, Roger is a toon-shaded, 3D model.

However, bits of the film are still alive in the Disney theme parks. Several of the film’s props are still sitting around Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Walt Disney World, and on special occasions, Roger (and sometimes Jessica) can be seen in the various theme parks as meet-and-greet characters. Plus, the film’s characters live on in Roger Rabbit’s Car-toon Spin, a “dark ride” attraction located in Mickey’s Toontown at Disneyland.

In the thirty years since the film was released, we’ve seen a number of live-action/animation films like Cool World and Looney Tunes: Back in Action, attempt to do what Robert Zemeckis’ film did. However, none of the attempts I’ve seen, even comes close to topping Roger. Today, it would be ‘easy’ to make a film like this, but the blood, sweat and tears that went into making that 1988 film, helps make it a true work of art in my opinion.

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Movie Review: Jurassic World – Fallen Kingdom

(Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of science-fiction violence and peril)

25 years ago, Steven Spielberg ruled the summer box-office with Jurassic Park. The film not only wowed audiences around the world, but also signaled full-speed-ahead for the use of computer technology in feature films.

Since then, the film series has had two mediocre sequels, a nostalgic ‘reboot,’ and now, with Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, an attempt to shake things up in a big way.

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Three years after the events in Jurassic World, the island’s long-dormant volcano, is about to erupt.

While debates rage about trying to save the dinosaurs, Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), are recruited as part of a secret operation to try and rescue as many of the dinos as possible. This order comes from John Hammond’s former partner Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), and his assistant, Eli Mills (Rafe Spall).

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The rescue party encounters a Brachiosaurus.

While Claire and Owen are to assist with helping collect a number of dinosaur species, key among them is Blue, one of the velociraptors that Owen trained, and who exhibited some remarkable intelligence.

However, as the clock ticks down to the destruction of the island, things start to quickly spiral out of control.

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Much like how The Last Jedi looked to change the game with Star WarsFallen Kingdom is looking to rock some people out of their comfort zone as well.

Jurassic World’s Colin Trevorrow vacates the director’s chair (but has co-written the script along with Derek Connolly), and passes the torch onto director J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage, A Monster Calls).

The character depictions manage to be ‘passable’ for the most part. Pratt seems to have dialed up the ‘smugness’ in his depiction of Owen, and in the three years since the first film, Claire has gone from ‘proper businesswoman’ to a ‘dinosaur rights activist’ (shades of John Hammond in The Lost World?).

The two are joined by two conservationists that Claire knows, in the form of a no-nonsense paleo-vet named Zia (played by Daniella Pineda), and a tech-whiz by the name of Franklin (Justice Smith). Franklin ends up being the comic relief for much of the film, though his ‘city-boy-out-in-the-jungle’ act may grate on some who’ve seen it in a number of other films.

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Maisie Lockwood (Isabella Sermon)

Like all Jurassic films, this one attempts to shoehorn in a child, in the form of Bruce Lockwood’s granddaughter, Maisie (Isabella Sermon). The film tries to add an air of mystery surrounding her, though I think if you pay attention to several scenes, you might be a few steps ahead regarding what the resolution is.

Watching the film, you may be surprised how quickly the story moves through the island of Isla Nublar, almost like Bayona is excitedly wanting to get us to ‘the good stuff.’

Unfortunately, much of the film quickly starts to feel like it’s a little too overloaded with subplots. It wants to not only add more to Hammond’s backstory, but also try adding more to Owen and Blue’s history, let alone dabble a bit more with the ‘genetic tampering’ we were privy to in Jurassic World. Plus, don’t be surprised if you get some Lost World vibes from the film, regarding it’s sub-plot about mankind trying to once again control nature…and once again getting lectured on this topic by Dr Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum in a very brief appearance).

By this point, the awe of seeing a dinosaur has worn off, and Bayona tries (commendably) to give us a few notable moments, but none of them come close to those ingrained in our minds from the 1993 film. Where he does succeed, is in elevating the tension with several darkened scenes. After awhile, the audience may find themselves keeping track of the flashes of light in some scenes. This is usually the key for something to sneak closer to us, depending on the number of light flashes.

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Director J.A. Bayona, inspecting one of his actors.

Speaking of ‘flashes,’ that seems to be what may stand out the most regarding the film. There are little ‘flashes’ of memorable moments that will probably stick with the viewer, but in regards to embracing the film as a whole, it feels like that may be a tall order to fill.

Even so, I couldn’t help but sense that Bayona’s fandom of Steven Spielberg, is inscribed all over Fallen Kingdom. I noted not only a number of scenes feeling “Spielbergian” regarding their use of lighting and reflections, but also a number of touchstones related to the 1993 film (and possibly it’s sequels from 1997 and 2001?).

In the end, Fallen Kingdom attempts to steer us in a new direction regarding a world in which dinosaurs and man exist…one that may surely divide fans of the Jurassic franchise, on just which direction the series should head towards.

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Final Grade: B- (Final Thoughts: Following in the foosteps of Colin Trevorrow, director J.A. Bayona attempts to steer Fallen Kingdom in a new direction. The film’s attempts to shake up what we’ve come to expect, ends up getting a bit unwieldly, as it strives to balance a number of subplots over the course of it’s 2-hour run-time. The attempts to awe the audience, pale in comparison to a number of moments where the director manages to build tension with some well-paced scenes, relying a bit on the ‘Spielberg playbook.’ )

 

Retro Recaps: Dinosaurs (Season 4, Episode 2) – Earl, Don’t Be a Hero

A television sitcom, about a family of dinosaurs

That was the idea that Jim Henson (creator of The Muppets) pitched for a TV series in the late 80’s. Some thought he was nuts at first, but eventually, the show got a green-light from ABC Television, and Dinosaurs was born.

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From 1991-1994, the show chronicled the lives of the Sinclair family, who lived in Pangaea. Unlike traiditional interpretations of the massive creatures, the show (with the help of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop) would see dinosaurs living in a suburban environment, often delving into problems that modern humans could relate to.

One of the main members of the show was Earl Sinclair. A dopey father-figure, this megalosaurus would attempt to provide for his family, often having his ego get in the way, and quite often, end up being berated by his youngest child, Baby Sinclair.

Some of the time, Earl strove to be a good father figure, and in the second episode of the show’s fourth season, he got an unlikely assist in trying to earn his toddler’s respect.

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Earl returns home with exciting news: he’s been promoted to Toxic Waste Supervisor at the WESAYSO Corporation!

Unfortunately, his teenage kids Robbie and Charlene show little interest in his promotion. Earl attempts to get some sympathy from Baby Sinclair, but all the little guy wants to do is watch Captain Action Figure and his Paramilitary Pals, claiming the (well-marketed) captain is his hero.

“And what does he got that I don’t?” asks Earl.

“A TV Show!” retorts the baby.

The next day Earl gets to work as the new Toxic Waste Supervisor…by dumping a number of the WESAYSO Corporation’s toxic waste into a public lake!

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Earl also discusses with his co-worker Roy, how he’s created an ostentatious hat to make the baby realize how important the new job is.

“I don’t know pally-boy,” says Roy, “Seems to me, the love and respect of your child is cheapened somehow, if it’s based entirely upon the hat.”

Thinking Roy has a point, Earl tosses the hat into the lake.

“But, who am I to say?” rethinks Roy. “I don’t have any children.”

This causes Earl to dive into the (now-toxic) lake to retrieve the hat. However, once he comes out, he’s glowing green! the color fades away, but when Earl stretches towards the sky, he suddenly starts flying!

Once he comes back down to Earth, Roy tells Earl that the toxic waste must have given him superpowers. They check for additional powers, and find that Earl also has heat vision, and can guess someone’s weight!

Roy tells Earl that he should use his powers to become a superhero, and Earl becomes ecstatic, figuring that the baby will really like him now that he has superpowers. However, Roy explains that Earl can’t do that. Like a good superhero, he has to protect his secret identity, for the safety and well-being of his family.

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Earl then adopts the moniker of Captain Impressive, and with a snazzy superhero suit, Earl flies all over Pangaea, foiling bank robberies, redirecting comets, and much more!

Pretty soon, the Sinclair family is enthralled by the superhero’s exploits that they see on TV news. One of the bigger upsides for Earl, is the baby now likes Captain Impressive more than Captain Action Figure.

Earl also hasn’t bathed since he fell into the toxic lake, and even though his wife questions his peculiar odor, Roy cautions him that a shower will surely wash away the chemicals that give him his powers.

Unfortunately, Earl’s boss Mr Richfield sees him use his heat vision during lunch, and calls Earl into his office. Richfield manages to trick Earl into revealing his superhero identity, and praises his superpowers.

“They could be very useful to a sinister, multi-national conglomerate such as this,” notes Richfield.

Earl claims that he won’t use his powers to help evil, but Richfield claims that he has no choice…because he’s contractually obligated to do so! Apparently, in the WESAYSO contract Earl signed long ago, if a dinosaur who works for the company ever obtains superpowers, they must use those powers for whatever the company wants! Richfield still allows Earl to stop crime and all, but only once he has completed his obligations to the company…such as opening WESAYSO shopping centers, and advertising WESAYSO brand products.

This shift in his agenda causes the majority of the Sinclair family to consider Captain Impressive as ‘a sell-out,’ but the baby is still impressed by the superhero.

This blind hero-worship comes into play when Richfield tells Earl, that the company has plans for a TV show called The Captain Impressive Action Fun Hour. Earl is at first excited, feeling he can teach kids plenty of important life-lessons, but his boss quickly tells him that the show is only to get the kids to convince their parents to buy over-priced (and often unsafe) merchandise! Some examples include a Captain Impressive doll that has a knife inside it, pajamas made out of newspaper, and even a trachea plug!

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Earl attempts to use sound logic against big-business, but Richfield orders him to get to the TV station. Once there, Earl finds that the show is actually just an hour-long program on a home-shopping channel.

As the program goes on, Earl is surprised when Baby Sinclair calls, wanting to purchase a Captain Impressive trachea plug! When Earl hears the baby say he wants to buy the item because it has his face on it, Early finally has enough, and takes off his mask (shocking his family at home)!

Earl attempts to talk to the viewers about WESAYSO’s money-grubbing ways, but he is shoved aside, and relieved of his Captain Impressive costume.

Returning home, Earl finally showers, and washes off the toxic waste, nullifying his powers and superhero career.

He also gives the baby one of the Captain Impressive dolls (minus the dangerous knife inside it). However, the baby claims that he doesn’t like Captain Impressive anymore, since he’s got no superpowers.

“Well I’ll let you know a little secret,” says Earl. “If you take off the cape, and the mask and the funny costume, sometimes you fine a real hero underneath.”

“Looks like you,” says baby, looking at the costume-less figure.

“That’s the point,” continues Earl.” You see, Daddy’s are heroes too, and Mommies. We may not have heat vision, but we go to back-breaking, mind-numbing jobs so you can grow up comfortably and, have some nice things in your life. It may not be flashy, but it’s real.”

When the baby just demands Earl ‘guess his weight,’ he walks away, feeling like he’s wasted his time.

However, a few moments later, he hears the baby, and sees him playing with the action figure!

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“I’m Captain Daddy,” proclaims the baby. “Going to work…a mind-numbing job! Honey, I’m home!”

As the baby laughs, Early smiles, happy that he did get through to his son.

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And that was Earl, Don’t Be A Hero.

When it comes to some shows, it feels like the topic of superheroes eventually comes up, and Dinosaurs got to check that off their bingo card.

There also is some fun comedy with the Captain Action Figure TV show in the beginning, where the show tries to convince the kids at home, to guilt-trip their parents into buying merchandise.

This episode also shows how Earl is definitely not a perfect character, but still has some positive attributes (given the appropriate script). He quickly accepts that he has to do his job and dump toxic waste in a public lake, but also shows that he doesn’t wish to lead his young son astray with the wrong life-lessons (even if the baby can be annoying at times).

The show also seems to have some fun with the secret identity bit. Given that Captain Impressive and Earl have the same body-type, the family never puts two-and-two together, until he removes his mask.

There actually is a fun little bit of trivia regarding the action figure of Captain Impressive. It’s sculpt may not look like the Earl we know, but once upon a time, it was the original design for him. However, they found the original design looked a little too ‘stern.’ The features were softened, and Earl became more of the dopey Dad we see in the show.

For me, the highlight of the episode is it’s ending, where Earl tells the baby how parents are often the ‘unsung heroes’ of their families. Almost every episode of Dinosaurs usually has an interesting message to take away, and I found this was one that I feel is rarely ever touched upon.

While probably not one of the series’ best episodes, I did like what it did with it’s themes of being a parent, as well as trying to be a responsible superhero, in the face of the evils of the world (like greedy corporations).

Movie Review: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and language

When it comes to the world of children’s television programming, probably noone handled it in such a unique way, as Fred Rogers.

Originally intent on becoming a priest, his career path swung in an unlikely direction, when he first saw what was being offered as children’s programming in the early 1950’s. Pies in the face and shows that seemed to care more about selling children products, made Fred want to use the medium in a way to help children.

MrRogers-1This led him to start what became known as a staple of The Public Broadcasting System (aka PBS), for almost thirty-five years. Mr Roger’s Neighborhood was a show where Fred could talk to children in a simple environment, have them experience new things, and send them to the Land of Make-Believe via his toy trolley car. On his show, he embodied the figure of a good neighbor, the kind that would not judge, but want to talk to you, and get to know more about who you were.

With his latest film, director Morgan Neville gives us more information on a man whom many of us have only known from our youthful watchings.

Rather than choose to have a narrator guide us through the film, Fred’s life is chronicled through remembrances with family, friends, and acquaintances. It is through their observations and memories, that the film is buoyed onward with Rogers’ ‘spirit.’ For those expecting there to be a lot of ‘dirt’ to dish out, you will be disappointed. Pretty much the kind of man you saw on your television screen, was very much what Mr Rogers was like off-camera.

My memories of Rogers’ show were very faint, and what the film revealed were things I had never realized. Notable was how Fred would take real-world problems, and try to deal with them in the settings of his show. Covering topics like assassination and even divorce, he would try to help children (and in some cases adults), make sense out of things.

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Daniel Striped Tiger, with Fred Rogers

Of course, he wasn’t without his own problems. From being ill as a child to being a chubby kid in his early teens, he seemed to hold onto these memories, and try to channel them into something that could help others. Some of the things he experienced, are presented to us in animated form, with the puppet of Daniel the Striped Tiger from the Land of Make Believe, standing in for Fred. In fact, some claim that Daniel was a stand-in on the show, for how Fred felt about certain things.

On his show, he seemed to want to show us a world where kids could depend on grown-ups to help them, and to give them the attention and love they needed. In the times we are in now, such things feel like a ‘myth’ from long ago. Watching Fred talk strongly about his beliefs in how love and acceptance are keys to helping those in the world, will definitely make many people wish Mr Rogers was still with us today. One could imagine him sitting down by his staircase, and trying to help relieve people of the numerous fears that have taken hold of our daily lives…and those knowing that the words coming out of this man’s mouth, were genuine, heartfelt, and honest.

Released amid a cacophony of summer films, Won’t You Be My Neighbor feels like the ‘pleasant’ alternative that not only entertains, but also educates. I do agree with one headline, that it is definitely ‘the film we need right now.’

I think for many, it will act as a ‘salve for the soul.’ This is a film that will surely make some sad to realize how long we have been without Mr Rogers, but maybe, learn a few new things about him, and take away some new lessons to apply to our world, once the lights come up in the theater.

“Love is at the root of everything. All learning, all parenting, all relationships. Love, or the lack of it” – Fred Rogers

Final Grade: A-

Book Review: James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction

Over the last 30 years, writer/director James Cameron has made a number of memorable, and successful films.

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Filmmaker James Cameron.

While he has delved into themes of espionage (True Lies) and period romance (Titanic), the bulk of his work takes place within the genre known as science fiction. Some of these films include The Terminator, The Abyss, and Avatar.

Recently, Cameron partnered with the television channel AMC, to create the six-part original series, AMC Visionaries: James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction. For the show, Cameron’s goal was to sit down with six of the biggest names in science fiction, and get their perspectives on the importance, and the impact of the genre.

These guests include directors Steven Spielberg (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T.), George Lucas (THX-1138, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope), Christopher Nolan (Inception, Interstellar), Guillermo Del Toro (Pacific Rim, The Shape of Water), Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner), and actor, Arnold Schwarzenegger (who portrayed the Terminator in Cameron’s film series).

Insight Editions’ book reproduces Cameron’s interviews in full, and offers several topical summaries by a number of people familiar with science fiction. These topics include dark futures, artificial intelligence, time-travel, and much more.

When I saw the interview lineup, I did question the inclusion of Schwarzenegger (given that Arnold has never directed a science fiction film). However, Cameron seems to have also included himself, as an unofficial interviewee within the book.

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James Cameron’s painted concept of the Terminator, once Schwarzenegger was cast for the role.

One of his cohorts named Randall Frakes (who has worked with him on a number of projects), acts as the interviewer for Jim’s views on science fiction. Over the years, I’ve often heard the story of how Cameron was inspired by Star Wars, quit his job as a truck driver, and got into film profuction. With the Frakes/Cameron interview, it was definitely an eye-opening look into what makes Cameron tick regarding science fiction, as well as some of the decisions he makes regarding his films.

It should be noted that when Cameron gets around to interviewing his guests, he chooses to mainly discuss the science fiction topics their work tends to focus on. For example, you won’t find Guillermo Del Toro expounding on time-travel, but you will get his views on monsters in science fiction (plus, he talks about the time he and a friend encountered a UFO!).

If you’ve studied any of the directors that Cameron interviews, you’re probably going to find some overlap with the information they provide. I was already well-versed in Spielberg’s handling of the late Stanley Kubrick’s unfinished film A.I. (Artificial Intelligence), and most of what he talks about during his interview, I was well aware of.

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Director George Lucas (left), explains his thought processes to James Cameron (right).

Of all the interviews, I felt that George Lucas’ discussion with Cameron came across as a bit ‘detached’ at times. One can sense Cameron wanting to possibly steer the conversation a little deeper towards Star Wars, but George doesn’t seem that interested in dissecting something he’s probably already discussed dozens of times before. Of interest to me, was his expounding a bit deeper into his feelings about inter-connectivity and micro-bacteria, which seemed to tie into that most loathed of prequel subjects: midichlorians. George also comes across as more of a realist, than his more optimistic friend, Steven.

While Spielberg and Lucas were two of the guys I was very familiar with, it was the likes of Nolan, Scott, and Del Toro whom I had little knowledge of.

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Filmmaker Ridley Scott.

Of the three, it is Ridley Scott who is the ‘old master’ of science fiction here, and one can almost feel Cameron acting like an excited fan, getting to interview a man after his own heart.

In recent years, Scott has made a comeback into science fiction with films like Prometheus and The Martian, which Cameron seems to have been heavily enamored with (he mentions it’s ‘science-fact’ premise to a number of his interviewees). Of course, the pendulum swings both ways, as Scott tells Cameron that Avatar inspired him to consider returning to the realms of science fiction.

The book also gets a teensy bit ‘political’ as it delves into some topics, such as how people perceive science in this day-and-age. I was surprised during one interview where Cameron seemed to ‘hijack’ the conversation, and expound a bit on his own views and research about artificial intelligence. While he didn’t feel that his Terminator films were some form of self-fulfilling prophecy, he does tell about an experience regarding how some people may be looking to misuse A.I., the way people ended up making a mess of things with atomic energy.

Along with a number of visuals from science fiction films (via still-frames and posters), the book is filled with a number of original art pieces created by Cameron. Most people are not aware that he is also an artist, and has been doing science fiction art for many years, whether for his own pleasure, or as concept pieces for films he has done.

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Concept art made by James Cameron, for his unmade science fiction short, Xenogenesis.

Most notable are a number of concept drawings and paintings done for an unmade short called Xenogenesis. It is fascinating to look at these, and see how Cameron utilized them in other films he’s done.

A prime example is this piece on the left. The giant robotic vehicle has elements that would be utilized for the tank-like Hunter-Killers in 1984’s The Terminator, while the female character doing battle with it in her own mechanical vehicle, seems eerily reminiscent of Ripley’s battle with the Alien Queen in his 1986 film sequel, Aliens.

For those expecting Cameron to mostly sit aside and let his guests speak, you may find yourselves disappointed. This isn’t someone from the entertainment section of a news program asking throwaway questions, but someone who is here to ask some very deep questions.

Readers may also grow a little tired, as Cameron tends to monopolize some conversations. This is most notable in his own interview with Frakes. It seems that Jim could go on-and-on with all the information he’s accumulated over the years.

Even so, James Cameron’s The Story of Science Fiction is a book I would highly recommend to those who are fans of Cameron, or any of the guests he speaks with. Even if you may know a lot about a few of those being interviewed, what you glean from reading about the additional guests and the science fiction genre in general, will surely be an eye-opener to many.

Movie Musings: Remembering ‘Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,’ 10 Years Later

Inspired by the Saturday Matinee Serials like Flash Gordon and Commando Cody that he saw as a boy, George Lucas would combine his memories of those shows with mythology and “the hero’s journey,” to create one of the most pop-culturally loved (and loathed) space-adventure series of all time.

Though not much of a storyteller, George was largely a man of ideas, and on a Hawaiian beach with Steven Spielberg in 1977, he shared another serial-inspired idea with his famous friend.

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L to R: Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Harrison Ford on the set of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

While Steven had been trying to get the family of Albert Broccoli to allow him to direct a James Bond film, George claimed he had an idea that was “better than Bond.”

Lucas’ concept of an archaeologist/professor intrigued Steven, and the two directors made a pact to do a trilogy of films around the character.

With Harrison Ford cast as the lead, Indiana Jones made his whip-cracking debut in 1981 in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and quickly became a worldwide hit. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom followed in 1984, and while a much darker film than it’s predecessor, it still turned a profit. Five years later, the trilogy was completed, with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

However, even though he had created an entertaining action-film trilogy, the public wanted more. Following the release of Crusade, Steven would often be asked, “when are you making another Indiana Jones movie?”

The same was asked of Harrison Ford and George Lucas, and after a reunion with the cast and crew, almost everyone who had been involved seemed okay with doing another film…except Steven.

In a making-of excerpt, Spielberg explained that he was ‘the hold-out,’ and felt the scene of the characters riding off into the sunset at the end of Last Crusade, was a fitting closure to Dr Jones’ story on film.

In the end, Steven was coaxed along by his friends, and after a decade or so of prep-work, Henry Jones Jr, would return to the big-screen.

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Aliens…why’d it have to be aliens?

In the early years of the 21st century, it was commonplace for many to bash filmmaker George Lucas as an out-of-touch creator. His Special Edition releases of The Star Wars Trilogy had brought fans back to theaters, but purists were angered at the changes he had made. The release of the Star Wars prequels from 1999-2005, further cemented fan-hatred, when Lucas seemed unwilling to fulfill the words of what Obi-Wan Kenobi had told Luke Skywalker, in A New Hope.

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L to R: Producers Kathleen Kennedy and George Lucas, on the set of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

When it came to Indiana Jones, his adventures of fighting Nazi’s and trekking through strange-and-exotic locales in the first three films, fit into Lucas’ ode to the serials and the time period of the 1930’s. While Indy would weather the years and rarely change his ways, audiences would soon find that the world of the 50’s, was a very different place.

With the defeat of Hitler and the end of WWII, there was now a new war…a Cold War, and it involved the country of Russia. With Crystal Skull‘s 1957 time period, the film attempted to tie together real-life elements, such as the fear of Communism, the Red Scare, as well as the birth of The Atomic Age.

There was also a change in the adventure-film aesthetics. In Lucas’ mind, the concept of 1950’s B-movies, would influence Indy’s 1950’s adventure, much in the same way that the 1930’s serial had done with the first three films.

And, unlike artifacts that were a bit more tangible to the common person in western civilization (such as the Ark of the Covenant or The Holy Grail), the mcguffin for the new film, would be a bit more of an ‘abstract’ object, akin to the Sankara stones from Temple of Doom.

The new item, was a crystal skull, in the shape of an elongated alien’s head, that possessed psychic powers.

Upon hearing his friend’s idea to use aliens in the new film, Spielberg claimed that he was done with alien films, but Lucas was adamant that the new film would work with the alien mcguffin. Over the course of pre-production, it was the one storypoint that he would not compromise on: there would be aliens, end of story..or so he thought.

Finally, Lucas decided that instead of being aliens, the crystal-skulled creatures, would actually be ‘inter-dimensional beings,’ but with an alien appearance. And, while they would travel in flying saucers (another staple of 1950’s B-movies), they wouldn’t travel through space, but through time.

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Poster for Tokyo DisneySeas’ Temple of the Crystal Skull attraction.

Some may assume that Lucas’ concept of crystal skulls in the world of Indy was brand-new, but in fact, they had been thought of as a (non-alien-influenced) mcguffin for Dr Jones, as far back as the early 1990’s.

During that time, Lucas was producing The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. The television series showed Indy in various time periods of his life, and at one point, a script had been written where Indy went looking for a crystal skull. However, the series was cancelled, and the script was shelved…but the concept was still there.

The story concept would next find new life, when Tokyo Disneyseas (an expansion of Tokyo Disneyland), opened Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Crystal Skull in the fall of 2001.

While the ride’s innards would largely resemble Disneyland‘s Temple of the Forbidden Eye, the deity known as Mara would be replaced by a large, glowing crystal skull, that sent riders on a path to their doom.

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“You Can’t Go Home Again.”

I often recalled as a kid, the characters in Charles Schulz’s Peanuts comics, referencing this line. Taken from novelist Thomas Wolfe, I feel it best summarizes Lucas’ films where he returns to a familiar subject, after some time has passed.

When it comes the properties Lucas has been associated with over the years, people have very much been enamored with trying to recapture the magic they experienced, seeing those films in their youth. I recall how high the nostalgic factor was when Episode I debuted. Within hours of it’s release, it soon became apparent that George was not just going to shower his viewers with lots and lots of fanservice.

The same could be said when it came to Crystal Skull. However, I can’t help but feel there was a method to ‘the madness.’

Like the Star Wars prequels, it feels like many were hoping to walk in and encounter Indiana, as if no time had passed. Lucas isn’t really a sentimental individual, and it feels like the story concept for the film, was to show that Jones had to move on, and find a new group of people to be with in his life.

When we first encounter him, Jones is under suspicion of being in league with the Communists after the Area 51 opening. This puts his teaching career in jeopardy, and, we learn that two of the people in his life have recently died: Marcus Brody, and his father, Henry Jones, Sr.

As the story goes on, we see a new family unit build up around him. From the realization that Mutt Williams (Shia LeBeouf) is his son, to the fact that Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) still harbors feelings for him, and his old friend Harold Oxley (John Hurt), needs his help.

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L to R: Indy (Harrison Ford), Harold Oxley (John Hurt), Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), Mutt Williams (Shia LeBeouf)

By the end of the film, Indy has a new ‘family,’ and we see him marrying Marion.

Some may find this an odd ending, given the old formula of how Jones encountered a new female lead with every film, but that was a younger Indy, and he isn’t quite the ladies man now, as he was in the 1930’s.

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Parallels to Previous Storylines

While many gave Crystal Skull a hard time, screenwriter David Koepp still attempted to retain certain through-lines, that drew parallels to the three previous films.

In Raiders, there was talk about how Hitler was ‘obsessed with the occult,’ which tied into the search for the Ark of the Covenant. In Skull, there is word that Stalin is interested in ‘psychic warfare,’ which ties into the search for the crystal skulls, and attempts to find the lost city of Akator.

The villains also figure into parallels to previous films.

Ever since Raiders, there has come a moment where Indiana usually has to take on a ‘big baddie.’ Whether it be the German mechanic in Raiders, or Colonel Dovchenko in Skull, Indy usually finds himself fighting a losing battle, until he is saved by happenstance, and his foe meets a gruesome demise.

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There is also the continual plotpoint about how the lead villain is searching for something, and once they get their hands on it…it usually leads to their demise (as seen in the screencaps above).

Indiana himself is also open to story parallels.

Almost every film involves him trekking deep into a temple or a darkened cavern. In these situations, it is usually Indy who is the brave one, while he has to contend with a cohort who is freaked out by what they find inside. Whether it be Marion with the snakes in Raiders or Mutt encountering a scorpion in Skull, each darkened space can be counted on to contain some creepy-crawlies.

There also is Indy’s doubt over the ‘mystical nature’ of the artifacts he is looking for. In each film, he starts out just thinking the mysticism surrounding the items is nonsense. Of course, by the end of the film, he has usually changed his tune.

Also by the end of the film, he usually ends up going home empty-handed, but has quite a story to tell.

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Closing Thoughts, and Ideas on Indiana Jones 5

Much like The Phantom Menace, Crystal Skull would clean-up at the worldwide box-office, but it’s ‘imperfections’ have made it the black sheep of the series, causing many to disavow that it ever happened.

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Tweet from the Alamo Drafthouse, about their Crystal Skull celebration/not-celebration.

The most notable one, happened recently when the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema announced they were holding a 10th anniversary party for the opening of Crystal Skull…by showing only the first three films (the equivalent of throwing someone a birthday party, and not inviting the guest-of-honor!).

Looking around online in the past few days, it does appear there are those that feel the same as I do about the film: while not a great film, it is far from the trainwreck many claim it to be…but then again, internet fanbases loves to throw pity-parties.

One of the most ridiculous comments I heard following the release of Crystal Skull, was some fans ‘demanding’ that a fifth film be made to ‘apologize’ for the fourth one.

Rumors persisted that we might still get an Indy 5, notably in regards to The Walt Disney Company acquiring Lucasfilm in 2011 (whose purchase included ownership of both Star Wars and Indiana Jones licenses).

Now, word is that another film is coming to pass, with Harrison Ford once again cracking the whip…but, for the last time. Ford is now in his mid-70’s, and given Indy’s rough-and-tumble penchant for action and stunts, it makes sense this will be his last outing.

Scheduled for a July 2020 release, what the fifth installment will entail has not been revealed. Word is that Lucas declined to be involved with the film’s development, but David Koepp (who wrote the screenplay for Crystal Skull), is currently involved. However, it sounds like the new family Indy found for himself in his previous outing, may not return, and plunge the adventurer into a new area. With Shia Lebeouf having distanced himself from Spielberg, and John Hurt passing away last year, that just leaves Karen Allen, though there’s been no word if she’ll return as “Mrs Jones.”

Some of you might be wondering, where is is there left to explore? Well, given that the filmmakers like to have Indy associated with certain time frames, I have one possible locale: Vietnam.

Given Indy has already dealt with Germans and Russians, I could see him having been cleared of spy charges, and then ends up over in Vietnam in the mid-60’s. Given at the time a lot of young men were being drafted to fight in the Vietnam War, I could imagine one of them becoming disillusioned, attempting to defect, and following Dr Jones on an adventure into the surrounding jungle territories.

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An interpretation of The Monkey King, by artist Aaron Shepard.

Of course, the big question you may have is, what would Indy be looking for? Why, The Temple of the Monkey King.

Also known as Sun Wukong, the Monkey King is known in a number of different Asian cultures. Resembling a monkey and having supernatural powers, some of the tales revolving around the character, tie into the concepts that the creature or certain items around him, can grant one immortality.

A story involving the Monkey King had been considered for both The Temple of Doom and The Last Crusade, and given how previous unused story ideas have often been recycled into later stories, I could see this being a good candidate to pay homage to some of the past story ideas Lucas considered.

Of course, some might say it could be a story retread, given the Holy Grail was a relic that promised ‘eternal life,’ but if the story was probably tweaked a bit more beyond what I can imagine, it might make for a fitting end. Plus, given technological leaps these days, one can imagine a motion-captured rendition of the Monkey King, interacting with Indiana Jones (though whether the old-school fans would accept this, is hard to say).

Of course, what you’ve read in the last couple paragraphs is just me speculating. I don’t have actual inside information, just a few ideas of my own. Still, if the Monkey King idea is dusted off, I’ll be interested to see what is done.

Otherwise, we’ll see if Spielberg and Koepp may find another religion-based mcguffin for Jones to go after in a few years.

Journeys Through Life: Animating Life – The Art, Science and Wonder of Laika

When it comes to the art of stop-motion animation, the creation of what goes into it is quite fascinating, but there’s no denying that it is probably the most tedious and frustrating of animation techniques.

This isn’t just drawing figures on paper, or moving them in three-dimensional space within a computer. Stop-motion requires someone to physically alter a three-dimensional figure within a real-world space. Moving their limbs, rotating an eyeball, maybe even ruffling their hair or clothes. Plus, there’s the construction of miniature sets, let alone lighting them for the proper mood and tone. Action has to be shot on one frame of film at a time…and if you mess up, you have to start all over again!

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A Laika animator, setting up a scene from Paranorman.

Fortunately, there are those who have the tolerance and patience to pull off this feat, and a number of them are in the Portland, Oregon area.

Laika Studios was founded there in 2005, and ever since they released Coraline in February of 2009, I’ve made it a point to see each of their new stop-motion releases. Over the last decade, they have become my favorite North American animation studio, eclipsing my feelings for PIXAR (feels good to know we haven’t had a Coraline 2 yet!).

The studio’s mandate to forego test-screenings, let alone float the possibility that their films may scare ‘the little ones,’ always has me eager to see what chances they’ll take.

While I had seen several pieces of production material related to Paranorman when visiting Universal Studios Hollywood in 2013, word that Animating Laika would showcase items from all four of the studio’s films, made me eager to make my first visit to Portland, Oregon.

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When one enters the museum through it’s Park Avenue entrance, guests are immediately greeted by The Pink Palace, from the Other World in Coraline.

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Laika’s largest stop-motion puppet, is this 18-ft skeleton, from Kubo and the Two Strings.

Once you make it past the pink palace (it may take awhile!), you then enter the central hall of the museum…where you come face-to-face with the studio’s largest stop-motion puppet: an 18-foot skeleton, seen in Kubo and the Two Strings.

Right beside it, is an array of replacement faces, that the studio has used in it’s productions. It can be a little unnerving seeing them with no eyes, but the detail of the creations is definitely something to admire.

Upon entering the special exhibition gallery, I was a surprised by the amount of space, and how it was utilized.

In the past, I’ve seen exhibits related to topics such as Pixar Animation Studios, and Muppets creator Jim Henson. In those cases, the layout of the exhibits seemed to lead guests on a ‘journey.’ It was like being in a maze, guiding the viewer through twists and turns, and leading them to an eventual ‘conclusion.’

With Animating Life, such a layout did not seem to exist, almost like the studio and the museum, were coaxing guests to create their own path within the exhibit space.

Much like the darkened curtains that often segment off different work-areas at Laika Studios, much of the exhibit is cloaked in black cloth and in low-light, allowing the eye to drift to lit areas, showcasing various items from the studio.

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The Coraline Garden set, from 2009 feature film.

The mood lighting also contributes to highlighting the centerpiece of the exhibition: the massive ‘Coraline Garden’ set (see above), illuminated with all sorts of plants, and other items from the film’s nighttime sequence.

There are also little ‘pockets’ of props and scenes from the studio’s films, from the Babcock family’s home in Paranorman, to the lavish ballroom seen in The Boxtrolls.

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3D-printed pieces and color/texture-mapping, used to simulate Archibald Snatcher’s ‘cheese allergy’ scene, from The Boxtrolls.

In various areas, there are displays also dedicated to the miniature wardrobe of the film, the design process of what goes into creating the puppets, as well as what goes into creating effects-work within the films.

The section regarding the studio’s work with effects was definitely intriguing. There are some things on-screen that look like they just used computers to make some transformations. However, it was nice to see them show how the studio went the extra-mile, to 3D-print out things like Archibald Snatcher’s allergic reaction in Boxtrolls (see left), or Aggie’s emotional torment in Paranorman.

While there are pieces from each of Laika’s films, it feels like Kubo and the Two Strings gets the most attention regarding the various items on display. This could also be not only because it was the studio’s most recent film, but also because their craftsmanship and technology, took some major leaps during the production.

One area I was disappointed in while viewing the exhibit, was in regards to the film’s conceptual artwork. Exhibits like these make me excited to see original props and pre-production artwork on display, but for the majority of such pieces here, the studio had opted to only showcase reproductions of their artwork.

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Recreation of a test-animation set-up, to work on character animation.

Along with the main gallery, there are a few other areas in the museum, dedicated to the exhibit.

Part of the Asian Art gallery was converted into a makeshift theater for the exhibition. Several videos are run on a loop, showcasing the people who work at the studio, and showing what working for Laika entails.

There is also a small area off to the right of the main gallery, that houses a ‘hot set’ recreation (see upper-right). The little set-up, is meant to show how the animators prepare to ‘find the character’ they will be working on for a production. I’m sure some people were surprised to realize the kind of planning that goes into bringing a character to life.

The museum’s gift shop can also be exited through near the rear of the exhibit. While Laika doesn’t have the kind of merchandising reach that Disney does, there were still products such as Coraline handbags, exclusive T-shirts, and even a limited-edition poster by Mondo Posters, chronicling characters and situations from all of their films.

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As of this posting, the exhibit is in it’s final days, and will be closing on May 20th, 2018.

While I wish there had been a lot more to see regarding Laika’s productions, I still give the studio and the Portland Art Museum props for putting on this 6-month exhibition, and getting me to make my first visit to Oregon.

It’s definitely worth a trip to see the miniatures and props from the studio’s films, let alone understanding that this isn’t just ‘claymation,’ but a much deeper, and in-depth artistry that goes into bringing the studio’s films to life.