Archive | January 2012

Visiting the World of “Peanuts” Creator, Charles M Schulz

Left: The Charles M Sculz Museum; Center: The Redwood Empire Ice Area; Right: Snoopy's Gallery and Gift Shop

In August of 2010, I had planned to visit the Charles M Schulz Museum as part of my California trip. However, sleeping through my early-morning alarm rendered that plan obsolete. I vowed that if I was ever in the San Francisco/Bay Area again, I’d make another attempt to go. When I decided to treat myself to the Cartoon Art Museum’s annual benefit held on the grounds of Pixar (that experience will be in an upcoming post), I made time to also head North to Santa Rosa, CA.

What surprised me the most was how low-key it was for someone without a car to get to the Museum. I utilized the Airport Express bus system, and from one of their drop-off points, took a cab to where the Museum is.

Before I went to the Museum, I decided to take in some lunch at the Warm Puppy Cafe, located in the Redwood Empire Ice Arena (aka Snoopy’s Home Ice). The arena was originally conceived of and designed by Schulz and his first wife, Joyce.

The Warm Puppy Cafe serves standard fare like hot dogs and hamburgers, but you can get a salad as well. Near the front door, was a small table that Schulz would often sit at when he took his breakfast or lunch. It still sits there, reserved.

Snoopy appears in several areas in the cafe. From this inviting shot over the fireplace-

-to this series of stained-glass windows that separates the cafe from the main ice arena entrance.

The arena itself was rather quiet when I took my lunch there, but in the evening, it really came alive. I walked around and observed people learning to skate. There really was a fine attention-to-detail paid to the atmosphere, and the wood-paneling and white of the ceiling tiles definitely felt very homey.

Located nearby, is Snoopy’s Gallery and Gift Shop. The building serves as both a place to get more commercially-based Peanuts memorabilia, and contains a small museum on its upper floor.

Here’s a picture of the lower sales floor, with The World War I Flying Ace ‘patrolling’ overhead in his Sopwith Camel.

The upper floor of the gallery had a number of vintage Peanuts items, but this item was particularly interesting. This was the barber pole that used to be outside the barber shop that Charles Schulz’s father worked at. The connection was made evident in the Peanuts strips, with Charlie Brown’s Dad being a barber. The barber pole here was ‘rescued’ by Charles’ daughter Jill many years ago.

Finally, it was time to visit the Museum. I must admit that I enjoyed the way that Schulz’s family really worked to make the structure not so ostentatious. Its simplicity on the outside seems to provide a nice sincerity that one doesn’t normally see in regards to some Museums. Plus, the clean lines and box-like windows put one in mind of comic-strip panels.

The museum’s Great Hall features several art pieces by Yoshiteru Otani. These include this wood-based piece showing Snoopy’s evolution over the years-

-along with this tile mural, made up of 3,588 Peanuts strips. Below, you can see what a portion of it looks like up close.

Off to the left of the Great Hall are the exhibition galleries. The main gallery areas have space for visiting exhibitions, and specially-themed exhibitions that showcase specific strips from the Peanuts lineup. Every few months, the exhibition is changed to a new theme. While I was there, the theme was Hit the Road, Snoopy. This exhibition was just like candy for me. Growing up and reading through all the Peanuts books in my school’s library, many of the strips on hand were deeply ingrained in my mind. One that was fun to see was where Snoopy attempts to enter a wrist-wrestling competition in Petaluma, CA. I still remember as a kid trying to figure how to pronounce the name (Pee-tah-luhm-muh?).

Much like seeing Monet’s Water Lilies up close adds an extra dimension to the artwork, so too did seeing the strips on display. One could see the pencil lines, pasted-over lettering corrections, and (my favorite), the ink layers for scenes where a character was seen in dark silhouette. The photocopying process that put the comics into newspapers would just meld all those layers into one basic black tone, so seeing the multiple layers was a little thrill for me. (At the request of the Museum, I didn’t take photos of the galleries)

On the other side of the Great Hall, the Courtyard housed several art pieces, and was a nice place to relax.

Of the various pieces of art on display, the giant Charlie Brown Sweater (created by artist Suzanne Morlock) was only there temporarily. Believe it nor not, it was ‘knitted’ using leftover mylar.

While the lower floor of the Museum feels moreso about the Peanuts gang, the main area on the second floor delves into Charles Schulz and his life. His studio has been recreated here as well.

A room adjacent to the ‘studio’ houses mementos of Schulz’s life, along with awards, and other odds-and-ends. There was also a smaller, temporary gallery featuring artwork that Schulz did that wasn’t primarily comic-strip related. Notable was this little ‘get well’ watercolor/pen-and-ink image that was made for Aunt Ruth. It’s a notable piece of art, because it has an adult figure rendered in the same frame as the Peanuts characters.

Eventually, all the art got to me, and I found myself in the Education Room, stocked with drawing tables, supplies, and much more. A stack of 4-paneled comic papers sat nearby, and after having been cheered up out of my world-weary, post-Black-Friday blues by A Charlie Brown Christmas (which was playing in the Museum’s main theatre), sat down and concocted a little thank-you comic strip to the Museum. I got a little thrill of nostalgia using a pencil with a big-tip eraser, not to mention a Crayola marker. In 1998-1999, I also worked on providing my hometown newspaper, The Waterloo Courier, with a weekly comic-strip for their teen section every Wednesday. That comic was Weird10 (aka ‘Weird to the Tenth Power’), and featured a number of teenagers on strange entertainment-related adventures, and who even encountered a Buddhist chicken.

As I finished it up, I was met by one of the Museum’s staff members named Kristi, who after seeing my comic, requested if she could include it in the Museum’s monthly employee newsletter. She offered to then swap me a copy of one of the Schulz strips for mine. I took her up on this offer, and described the strip from 12/29/61 to a ‘T.’ I have had some days where I feel just like Snoopy in the strip (below). Kristi also surprised me as we were discussing art, by telling me that her husband was the artist responsible for the overhead neon installation at O’Hare Airport, in the connecting tunnel between United Airlines‘s terminals.

As I took my leave of the area, I was very pleased with the visit. The design and presentation at the museum was one of the few that seemed to be very ‘sincere.’ The ability to honor Schulz’s artistic legacy while representing him as a simple man also helped. By keeping the Museum nestled in the familiar area where much of his life was, one definitely feels a comfort to the surroundings.

If you do visit, I strongly suggest also visiting the neighboring Redwood Empire Ice Arena, and Snoopy’s Gallery and Gift Shop. It feels that any journey wouldn’t be complete without seeing them as well.

Charlie Brown and I outside the Schulz Museum

Music Review: The Music Behind the Magic – The Musical Artistry of Alan Menken, Howard Ashman & Tim Rice

After going to see Beauty and the Beast last weekend in 3D, it made me a little sad at the end to remember the passing of one of Disney’s “legends”: Howard Ashman.

After working with Composer/song writer Alan Menken on Little Shop of Horrors, Ashman came to Disney, where he was offered several projects to work on. Out of all of these, he set his sights on the upcoming animated feature, The Little Mermaid. However, Howard saw the film as a way for Disney to return to its roots, where music often helped tell part of the story and moved the plot along. Reteaming with Alan Menken, the two embarked on a collaboration that would carry them through 3 films, and very soon, make the two as synonymous with the Disney company’s music as Richard and Robert Sherman (the brothers who are best known for their work on Mary Poppins and Winnie the Pooh).

Alan Menken (Center) and Howard Ashman (2nd from Right), discuss the orchestrations for "Be Our Guest" during a scoring session for "Beauty and the Beast."

While the dynamic duo of Menken and Ashman made The Little Mermaid a highly-entertaining film, it still feels to me that Beauty and the Beast was the pair’s zenith while working for Disney. Every song is so memorable, and the lyrics include some really interesting words (how many other songs have you heard that use the word expectorating?), not to mention a Macbeth reference. Plus, there’s the one moment where Belle (Paige O’Hara) channels Streisand.

After Menken and Ashman won Academy Awards for their work on The Little Mermaid, Ashman revealed to his musical collaborator that he had been diagnosed with AIDS. Howard worked as best as he could, helping to shape and finish his work on Beauty and the Beast, and still trying to do what he could regarding Disney’s next film, Aladdin. Sadly, less than a year later (on March 24, 1991), Howard Ashman passed away at the age of 40. In tribute to the contributions he made, a tag was added to the end of Beauty and the Beast when it was released that fall, saying how grateful the filmmakers were for him giving a mermaid her voice, and a beast his soul. With Howard’s passing, Tim Rice joined the crew of Aladdin, and helped to finish the final songs.

Back in 1994, The Walt Disney Company released The Music Behind the Magic – The Musical Artistry of Alan Menken, Howard Ashman & Tim Rice, chronicling the music of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, & Aladdin. The release served as the equivalent of both a behind-the-scenes music set, and a tribute to the three films that were graced with Ashman’s presence. As the world of aural stimulation was still at a crossroads, one could obtain the set in two forms: as a 3-audio cassette release, or a 4-CD set.

Each boxed set came with a ‘companion booklet’ that told about the making of the films, as well as notes and remembrances from the times gone past. Along with story sketches from the animators, the booklet also contains notes from Alan Menken regarding various pieces of music. What’s funny is one story where Alan Menken in his younger years questioned if he’d want to actually become a serious composer. The other alternative? Dentistry, which almost every single male in his family pursued. Surely this possible career choice was what inspired Orin Scrivello’s ‘psychotically happy’ song about his profession in Little Shop of Horrors.

Even with the 50+ page booklet, the highlights of this boxset are the songs. The set contains almost all the music we had come to find from the original motion picture soundtracks, but with some added goodies.

Jafar revels in his good fortune in a storyboard image created for visualizing the deleted song, "Why Me."

We hear original worktapes and demo tracks, several with added lyrics we haven’t heard before. The evolution of some songs is also interesting to note, such as how there was an attempt to give Jafar his own song in Aladdin. Ashman and Menken originally considered a song where Aladdin is exposed in a humiliating way (Humiliate the Boy), before Tim Rice and Menken tried a song that starts as a lament, and builds to a triumph (Why Me). In the end, they settled on a reprise of Prince Ali, which worked as Jafar exposes Ali’s true identity.

If there are downsides, to this set, it’s the following:

1) There are a couple songs where we start with 1-2 minutes of a demo-track, and then segue into the final music piece. One can’t help but want to hear those complete pieces as separate entities, instead of a mish-mash.

2) When Aladdin originally came out in theaters, there were a couple lyrics that were frowned on by several groups, and later soundtrack and home video releases included rewritten lyrics. Sadly, the original, uncut track is not included here, with the only trace of it being a small blurb telling of its omission from the boxset release.

When it comes to singing on the temp-tracks they worked on, Menken and Ashman were almost like a straight-man/funny-man double-act. Menken’s voice rarely changes whether singing as Ariel or Aladdin, but it’s Ashman who really gets into his character roles. His voice oozes machismo while singing Gaston, pitches higher and Jamaican as Sebastian, and (my favorite) sounds fiendishly slick as Ursula trying to pursuade Ariel in Poor Unfortunate Souls.

Concept art from "Aladdin" done by an unnamed artist, showing Aladdin with his Mother (before Mom was excised from the story).

By now, some of you may be wondering why a set chronicling these three films has 4 CD’s. Well, that fourth CD contains 10 tracks to what was the original concept that Menken and Ashman envisioned for Aladdin. In it, Aladdin was a poor kid who wanted to make his poor Mother proud of her son. As well, he often hung around with three friends named Babkak, Omar, and Kassim. By the sound of the tracks, the original concept strayed a bit from the regular boy-meets-girl storyline, and focused more on Aladdin’s family and friends. However, after a story meeting, it was felt that the concept wasn’t working out, and a major overhaul took place.

Jodi Benson and Howard Ashman during the recording of the song, "Part of Your World."

At this point in the review, it should come as no surprise that I’m a big fan of both this set and Howard Ashman. Some claimed in various making-of documentaries, that working with Howard was probably the closest to working with Walt Disney: both were men of vision, and much like Walt would push his artists to make meaningful art, Ashman would often push his collaborators to make meaningful songs that weren’t just ‘filler.’ As an aside, if you want to see a bit more of Howard Ashman at work, I recommend the film Waking Sleeping Beauty, where we see him working with Jodi Benson (the voice of Ariel), along with snippets of a lecture he gave to the artists at Disney about musical theater and Disney musicals of the past.

In 2006, the title The Music Behind the Magic reappeared again as a music compilation. This time however, it was to celebrate 50 years of Walt Disney Records. While that release acts as a spiffy best of regarding Disney’s musical heritage, I still prefer The Music Behind the Magic from 1994: a reminder of a period that helped revitalize animation, with music that is still remembered fondly 2 decades later, and shows no signs of being forgotten.

"I just don’t think anything is quite as magical as a Disney cartoon fairy tale…there’s nothing like that" - Howard Ashman


Toy Review: Boundin’ Buddies Plush Set

The Boundin' Buddies boxset, available exclusively at PIXAR's Studio Store in Emeryville, CA.

In 2004, Pixar Animation Studios continued their tradition of including an animated short before their feature presentation. The film was The Incredibles, and the short was called Boundin’.

The short was created by Bud Luckey, who not only had done concept art for Pixar, but had also developed several animated short-segments for Sesame Street in the 70’s and 80’s, such as The Alligator King, and The Ladybugs’ Picnic.

Boundin’ definitely felt like a lost Sesame Street short. When a dancing lamb’s white coat is sheared off, he sadly laments his shorn and pink appearance, until a big furry Jackalope comes upon him. The Jackalope then helps the lamb get over his shortcomings about his appearance, teaching him to stay positive, and that what he looks like on the outside, should not affect how he is on the inside.

In December 2011, I took advantage of the Cartoon Art Museum’s annual benefit held at Pixar Animation Studios. Naturally, I had to visit their Studio Store. The store is open mainly to employees of Pixar, and is located in the atrium of their Emeryville headquarters. Of great interest to me, was finding exclusive items that couldn’t be purchased anywhere else. The Studio Store has had numerous exclusive plush toys over the years. These have ranged from the alien teacher and student of the short film Lifted, and even little plush squeak toys of the little birds in the short-subject, For The Birds.

Sadly, those exclusive plush toys were nowhere to be found, but I did find the Boundin’ Buddies boxset (of which there were only 2 in stock!). I had always just seen images of the Jackalope and the little lamb (unshaven and pearly white). What I hadn’t counted on, was the incredibly awesome packaging that encased the two.

Opening the box’s front flap (held in place by two velcro circles), reveals our two plush buddies, and a collage showing the different animal players in the story, done in pencil art with marker-like coloring. Just like the concept and storyboard art, the box art appears to be drawn by the short’s creator, Bud Luckey.

But the fun doesn’t stop there. Art adorns each of the box’s sides.

The top showcases the playful little gophers…

…the bottom shows the smiling, swaying fishes.

On the left side, we have a playful (yet psychotically happy-looking) rattlesnake.

20111218-020401.jpg

While on the right side, we have a bouncy (yet also psychotically happy-looking) owl, hopping out of a hole in the ground.

Wesley James Prahl meets a couple new friends on New Year's Eve. The picture also gives you a good idea just how big the plush toys and the box are.

Though I did claim this as a toy review, I must admit I stretched the truth a little. While I love the set, I actually got it for Mister Wesley Prahl…aka the son of my friends, Eric and Jamie Prahl. I feel if anyone can truly enjoy the bouncin’ and boundin’ of these two characters, surely he and his family will.

Below is the rear of the box, and I’ve saved the best for last. The rear of the box is a playful rendition of the backside of the cover’s imagery, showing the Jackalope and the lamb bouncing off over the horizon (with the Pixar Animation Studios name playfully spelled backwards). The box also labels that the set is made by Thinkway Toys, the company who 16 years ago, created one of the hottest Holiday Toys around: Buzz Lightyear!

Now in this world of ups and downs, so nice to know there are Jackalopes around.

iPad App Review: The Art of The Adventures of Tintin

20120103-224116.jpg

With Apple’s App Store and iBooks changing the way many of us process the world and entertainment, It should be noted that up until now, it hasn’t been used for a rather interesting purpose: to condense those large, making-of books into a more travel-friendly ‘companion.’ For those of you wondering what I’m talking about, I am referring to the hardcover books found in the Media/Entertainment section of your local book store (or that you used to be able to find), generally giving us a view into the artistic and creative process of making most films (preferably those that are animated).

In the last few weeks, an interesting breakthrough in apps has come by way of Peter Jackson’s company Weta, publisher HarperCollins, and Moulinsart. As of December 21, 2011 (at least in the North American iTunes and App Store), these three companies have combined forces and released the first-ever iPad app that takes an Art of book, and brings it into the interactive/digital realm.

Based on the hardcover book The Art of The Adventures of Tintin by Chris Guise, this app looks to enhance the experience that many cinephiles like myself often take when wanting to learn more about a certain film.

Priced at a very modest $5.99 (the hardcover book’s retail price is $39.99), I will admit that the categorizing of this item had me a bit perplexed. Logic dictates that since it’s based on an Art of book, it should belong as a publication in the iBooks store. However, upon further inspection, layout and navigation processes soon reveal why the publishers have chosen to list this as an app.

20120103-230026.jpg

Clicking/swiping at the star icon at the bottom opens up a horizontal scrolling menu to allow easy access to various pages. A 'contents' dossier also appears on the left-side, which allows you to access various 'characters' and environments.'

The layout of the app drops page-turning, in favor of interactive scrolling, and touch-sensitive features. Almost every image in the app can be expanded to view at a larger detail, with some of them providing additional information when expanded.

Along with this feature, are several notable ones that help push the app into new frontiers:

1) The ability to fade between images – The icon showing a finger swiping vertically over a rocketship, gives you the ability to fade in-and-out between original artwork by Tintin creator Herge, and the conceptual artwork inspired by the original piece.

_______________________________________

2) 360-degree rotations – The icon showing a finger rotating a wire-frame globe gives us the ability to view 3-dimensional models all the way around. This feature showcases several of the film’s vehicular props, and facial close-ups of several of the cast.

_______________________________________

3) Interview & Video Clips – This icon will allow clips from the final film to play, along with interviews from the effects crew and designers.

_______________________________________

4) 360-degree Environmental Exploration– A couple of the film’s environments take advantage of the iPad’s gyroscope feature, and one can pan around the room in a 360-degree view as if you were actually there. Little stars in various areas will open up trivia and information boxes.

_______________________________________

But remember, this app isn’t just about whizz-bang features. We get a little background into just who Tintin is, as well as plenty of excellent work done by the guys and gals down at Weta.

The main characters (as well as a smattering of the secondary characters) each get the chance to be talked about regarding character design, performance-capture, & much more.

Also of interest to me were the myriad environments that were created for the film. One of my favorite images is this final rendering of Omar Ben’s magnificent palace in Bagghar that Tintin, Snowy, & Captain Haddock pay a visit to. It’s (almost) hard to believe that this place only exists inside of a computer.

The iPad app for The Art of The Adventures of Tintin is a nice first-step into what the future of Art of materials can be, and it is a commendable effort. However, there are a few areas that could be improved upon:

– While the ability to zoom in and read various text portions is nice, the app tends to lag, and one might find themselves waiting 5-10 seconds for the text to become legible again.

– The interview clips interspersed throughout are nice, but they feel a little short. Some only last a minute and thirty seconds. Plus, it would have been nice to include footage of the various actors emoting or acting within the performance-capture space (aka The Volume).

The constant rotation of various 360-degree items like vehicles and characters. It might be best to keep this feature static until the user touches/opens the feature.

– The app is set to only be displayed in landscape mode. While this is nice for some pieces of art, I found myself wishing I could view some of the more ‘vertical’ art pieces in portrait mode.

Please bear in mind that these are only minor nitpicks, and I highly recommend this app for those interested in behind-the-scenes material. One has to now wonder if Disney, Pixar, or Dreamworks Animation will also join the digital revolution that Weta, Harpercollins, & Moulinsart have begun. Who knows? With the dearth of studios sidelining making-of material from DVD and Blu-Ray, Apple’s App Store may be the next place where most of this behind-the-scenes material will be found.