Saturday, June 30, 2007

Great justice and refreshment in Akihabara!

You might have remembered the first time we met Vending Machine Red, the new robot superhero dispensing justice against the thirsts of Japan. Now Vending Machine Red, and his lighter comrade Vending Machine Zero, are bringing their brand of thirst quenching to the capital of the Otaku nation, Akihabara, Tokyo!

Note also that the Vending Machine Red crew are now subtitling their work. Come on, Coke! Buy some time on Adult Swim and watch your sales soar. I'm serious here.

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Sunday, June 24, 2007

The June Podcast...for real this time!

After re-engineering and all sorts of stuff, here's the June 2007 Cartoon Geeks podcast!
To download this show (about 34 gigabytes): If you have Windows, right-click on this link and select "Save target as..." If you have Macintosh, click and hold on this link and choose "Save target as..."

In this show we discuss the Star Wars Celebration Michelle attended in Los Angeles, the "relax-a-con" called OASIS 20 Tom attended in Orlando, and some music and talk from the man known as "the world's fastest filker," comedy music artist Tom Smith.

In addition, we discuss Surf's Up and Ratatouille in detail, we discuss a new print magazine about anime that's not just one big ad, and talk about our plans for San Diego Comic-Con and Atlanta's Dragon*Con.

By the way, here are links to two of our earlier Cartoon Geeks podcasts, for whom the same instructions apply:

The Podcast from last fall, when Tom visited Michelle in Geek Central, California...

And our "ashcan" recording from December in 2006, where Martin's voice was "dubbed in" by Tom, and we get the first recorded visit from Conditional Santa.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

A one hundred percent tasty dish.

There was a lot of worries about Ratatouille from the start, beginning with the name. The phonetic English pronunciation of the title, placed under practically every print ad, showed how the Disney suits were worried about it. "The story of a rat who wants to be a chef." That had 'em sweating, too. Add to that the location, Paris, and a cast full of the French, who are still the most disliked nationality among the people Americans nominally consider "friendly."

But I don't think anyone at Pixar was worried. And although I don't think this will break any box office records, as an animated film and as a comedy, it is far superior to Cars, and a lot more fun than any of the summer repeats or three-peats that are fighting for box office dominance.

First of all, the animation. At the end of the credits there's a little certificate, a 1950's print-ad cartoon of a smiling man, saying something like:

100% Animated
No motion capture used, ever!

And that's more than just a sneer (a smug French sneer) at DreamWorks Animation and Shrek, or Sony Pictures and Surf's Up. Director Brad Bird and his Pixar crew took the naturalistic background designs from Cars, arguably the best part of that film, and translated them from the American Southwest to Paris. The City of Lights never looked better, anywhere, than in this film. (Although Chuck Jones's Gay Purr-ee is fine if you like abstract art.)

In front of those realistic backgrounds, cartoony CGI characters thrive. Take the human protagonist Linguini (voice by Lou Romano, a background artist for Powerpuff Girls and voice artist on many Pixar films) In many scenes he is "puppeteered" by the rat hiding under his chef's hat, and goes spazzing around the kitchen like Jerry Lewis. (No, the French kitchen staff did not proclaim him a comedy genius.)

This would be an occasion for squash-and-stretch to get out of control at many studios, especially the ones using the motion-capture shortcut. Over the Hedge did a lot of that. Here, although it gets wild, at no point does Linguini look like he was made of rubber like Mr. Fantastic or Elasti-Girl. Proper animated restraint was shown.

And at the same time, Pixar seems to have refined and improved its ability to have CGI human characters emote and feel. One of the film's antagonists is the food critic Anton Ego (voice by Peter O'Toole). In one scene, where the cynical and hostile Ego walks into the restaurant, in profile, he resembles Richard Nixon. And I'm sure they intended exactly that visual implication. I'm not giving away anything by saying that at one point, Ego is momentously pleased. His face hasn't visibly changed or mutated, but he doesn't look like Nixon any more.

Pixar does equally well with the animal characters. Our rat chef Remy (voice by comedian Patton Oswalt) is able to flex and stretch into position. There are some amazing chases and action scenes early in the film, with Remy running in panic through the restaurant - under flaming burners, narrowly avoiding feet and rolling carts, almost getting baked inside a casserole. It's the fastest, funniest and yet most logical chase sequence I've seen in CGI.

All right, so how's the story? It isn't a threat-filled story like previous Pixar films. In fact, it's almost a light romantic comedy. Remy has always loved the idea of cooking. He idolizes Gusteau, a famous chef that has popularized fine cooking. He discovers that the chef has died and his restaurant has dropped from a five-star rating to three. When Remy winds up in the sewers of Paris, under Gusteau's restaurant, he starts seeing images of Gusteau everywhere (voice by Brad Garrett).

Some early misgivings about Ratatouille revolved around the "ghost" of Gusteau. Bringing in the supernatural, in a film not specifically about ghosts or the afterlife, seems like a cheap gimmick. But it becomes clear that this Gusteau is a hallucination of Remy's. Even Remy realizes it. And it's a nice point that Remy realizes it, but only understands the implication of this hallucination until near the climax of the film.

The one featured female in the film is Colette (voice by Janeane Garofalo), one of the chefs. In romantic comedies, females fall on a scale between being a "love interest" and a primary character. Colette leans towards the love interest part of the scale. She influences the plot enough to keep her from being superfluous.

For a G-rated film, there's no overt sex of course, but there's an attitude towards the battle of the sexes that's almost a parody of the French national character. Three times that I counted, two of those with Colette, women scream bloody murder and threaten their men - then suddenly turn around and embrace them. With this, it's odd that she's the only above-the-line female character. For instance, how is it that Remy belongs to a pack of rats that all seem to be male? How did they reproduce?

There's enough action to keep you satisfied, and considerable comedy, but the main emphasis is on the beauty of France and the wonders of cooking as an expression of the soul. It left me with a warm glow. The friend who saw the film with me kept saying "It's a cute film." And it is. But it is also romantic and funny and optimistic.

By all means, see Ratatouille. Stay to the end of the credits; they're entertaining, as much as the credit sequence of The Incredibles. Michael Giacchino's score, romantic and intelligent jazz without a lot of "obvious Frenchness" to it, is worth listening to. And stay to the end credits to see the "100% Animated" certificate. It may become as important a mark of quality as the sight of Luxo Jr., the little animated artist's lamp, jumping out at the start of every Pixar film.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Cartoon Geeks Podcast for June is up! (Well, almost)

Due to technical difficulties, the June podcast has been withdrawn.

We will be uploading a newer and better version very, very soon.

Please bear with us, thanks!

Michelle "Ms. Geek" Klein-Hass

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Monday, June 18, 2007

Vending Machine Red! For great justice!

This is a Coca-Cola TV ad from Japan. There have been 4 episodes of the adventures of Vending Machine Red, and this one is the best yet. In it, Vending Machine Red, transforming robotic bringer of refreshment, visits the Japanese Diet building. The Diet is equivalent to Congress here in the US. Note how absolutely flustered and flabbergasted the local cops look while having to deal with a guy cosplaying as a vending machine robot.

They really could bring these ads over to the US, and play them on "hip" cable channels like Comedy Central and Cartoon Network's Adult Swim bloc. All they would have to do is subtitle them. The subtitles wouldn't even have to be right.

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Saturday, June 16, 2007

It's a movie about Penguins...and it's good. Wow.

I love Penguins.

Let me say it again: I love Penguins. They are adorable critters. Flightless birds that nevertheless "fly" underwater. Even though Berkeley Breathed has been pounding poor Opus into the ground, during the original run of Bloom County I thought he was great. And of course, gotta love that Tux. Wheeze, Pudge, Tennesee Tuxedo, penguins have been beloved characters in animation.

However: I did not love Madagascar. I thought the gangsta penguins were trite and tiresome. And I certainly did not love Happy Feet. March Of The Penguins worked only because you were seeing real penguins in their real life and their real environment.

Surf's Up could have been trite and cutesy if they didn't watch out. But it isn't.

Here are six reasons why Surf's Up doesn't suck:

1.) The ensemble cast was allowed to record the track as an ensemble, ala Bullwinkle and Rocky. Modern mics allow for total audio separation of tracks, without "leakage." This afforded the ensemble the means to improv a good portion of the dialogue.

2.) "The Big Lebowski" with feathers. The pivotal character is not the "hero" (Cody Maverick, played by Shia LeBoeuf) but Geek, portrayed by Jeff Bridges. Geek abides, dude. Excellent vocal performance. Great character. Easily the most engaging character since Mr. Incredible.

3.) The character design creates distinctions between what could be monotonous characters ala Happy Feet and allows for real acting. I would have liked a little more looseness and a little more ability for facial squash-and-stretch but there was enough to make it work. The "loosest" and "most cartoony" character of the bunch, Chicken Joe, was able to do the best "acting."

4.) Animation was done by humans rather than mo-cap. This extended not only to the characters but also to the waves, which transcended traditional notions of "effects animation" and entered the realm of being true character animation. The waves were characters in and of themselves. And some of them got the best lines of all.

5.) No musical numbers. This was done as a "mockumentary" so there are no temptations to do showstopper numbers like with Happy Feet. The music is there as seasoning, punctuation. Not as raison d'etre. This worked.

6.) This is a movie like Pixar used to do. It is 100% "story driven" as opposed to set-piece driven. The movie compares favorably with the two Toy Story movies for good story.

Other good points: there are no ham-handed attempts to send pro-social "messages" in this movie. The only "message" here is that surfing is fun, and you get into a sport for the fun of it, not to win. The fun is its own reward. It helps if you have seen surfing documentaries to "get" some of the in-jokes in the movie. There is a riff on a crucial bit of footage in the documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys which is nothing short of spectacular. The soundtrack is great, with one song missing: "My Wave" by Soundgarden. Maybe they couldn't get clearance on that particular track. Too bad, there is a character in the movie which could have used it as a "theme song."

This is a worthwhile film, particularly since Summer is almost here. Catch this wave before it gets blown out, dudes.

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Sunday, June 10, 2007

OASIS 20: A Relax-a-con

First of all - if you're upset that the new Cartoon Geeks podcast isn't done yet - look at the kitten. Just look at the kitten. Breathe slowly. Feel better? Okay. The podcast will be up this week, I swear.

Now, what is OASIS? For those who don't know, this is the annual convention held around Memorial Day each year by OASFiS, the Orlando Area Science Fiction Society. This organization calls itself a "literary" science fiction group. They have taken great pains to differentiate themselves from cons that include "media" such as movies, TV and the like.

The upshot of this is that there are very few continuing members of OASFiS, and their group is predominantly old. There was only one video room, operated by a guy who pulled out his DVD player and 20-inch flat-screen, and his schedule was predominantly episodes of Heroes. The room didn't have much of a draw. My own Pre-Sweetened Playhouse had its first Orlando appearance during this con - at 8 AM on Saturday, where most of the conventioneers were still asleep in bed. If there had been a lot of kids in residence, it might have had a draw. As it was, only the video room operator and one other guy watched it (so I did have a quiz contest and awarded one DVD and one chocolate bar - a Cadbury's, by the way).

OASIS has survived, and stayed large enough to obtain a hotel contract, by involving gaming groups. When I worked with SunQuest Games, we brought in as many or more admissions for our games than the rest of the con. That was the case with OASIS 20; the "paper" role playing and miniatures gaming, run by a college-based group called FRAG, brought in at least half the attendees.

What were the main activities at the con? There was a panel discussing the final Harry Potter book. There was a design artist who worked at Disney who showed sketches of some of the things he'd done. There was a costume contest with only six entries, with the organizer telling everyone to "take your time, move slowly, don't let stage fright panic you." (Needless to say, taking their time would make the contest last longer.) There was also the "Cthulu Chili Contest" which occupied most of Friday evening. Like all such chili contests, there were no surviving entries, and much toilet paper was used that evening.

One of the possible reasons for the low turnout this year were the gas prices; $3.00 per gallon is steep, and may affect all kinds of events. For smaller community cons like this one, this can be devastating; some people may forget such cons in favor of one big one like Comic-Con or Dragon*Con.

Enough bad news. Here's the good news. This was the guest of honor at OASIS 20:

My friend Deb has been taking care of this foundling kitten. She couldn't leave it at home with her other cats, since it is still being weaned. She "snuck" the cat in; since she was already sharing the room with a blind woman and her service dog, there wasn't much complaint.

Everywhere she brought the cat, there were smiles, desires to pet and feed, and coos. There was perhaps the oldest person at the con, a frail woman who I fear was suffering an early stage of Alzheimer's. The one time she brightened up was when she saw the kitten.

There were other guests, too; Mary Hansen-Roberts the Floridian fantasy artist, Joe Haldeman the writer, and most important for me, comedy and filk musician Tom Smith.

Tom is an inspirational guy. He worked in the loan industry for years, during which he played filk at conventions. (For those who don't know, provides a definition of filk.) He was laid off - without notice - and spent half a year trying to get another paying desk job. Then, he realized that by attending many conventions, he was able to pay his bills without another job. Since then, he has produced multiple albums; he's set up several web sites for his music; he's produced a musical comedy opera, The Last Hero on Earth; and he's been a peer and father figure for comedy musicians.

To show you how odd the audience was for OASIS 20, Tom did a two-hour concert. About a third of the audience walked out halfway through, because there was a room party offering desserts. I repeat that: desserts. The ones who stayed were nourished far better, with music that made us laugh.

And cry. The song "A Boy and His Frog" has Kermit mourning the death of Jim Henson. Tom wrote it at a convention the weekend Henson died. He stayed in his room and rehearsed it until he could sing it three times without breaking into tears. He still choked when he first sung it for the public. I choke up every time I hear it.

I did what I could for Tom. I brought soda to keep him hydrated, I recorded his concert from the mixing board (and I'll send it to him - it's his recording and music) and, of course, bought some of his swag. I also videotaped the show and will get the video to him. And not just for the usual reason.

Tom did a song called "Tech Support for Dad." Anyone with computer knowledge, who has a father from the pre-computer age, knows what this is about. This time was different. Tom's father, and his entire family, were seated in the room for the convention. And Dad did his part, reading his own lines. I'll probably cut this piece separately for him to send to his family.

I'll see Tom again at Dragon*Con, most likely, but at this venue he was much more approachable, much more relaxed, and I think a little bit happier. And that is the best tribute I can offer to the "local cons" such as OASIS.

Oh, it would be wrong not to mention his web sites: is his main site.

Tom is also a founding member of The FuMP - The Funny Music Project, at - where you can download free music, with two new uploads a week, and maybe throw the artists some money for their trouble. And curiously enough for a convention with a cat - the latest song on The FuMP is a bizarre little song called "Cat Macros" which has already spawned two homemade videos.

One Cat Macros video
The other Cat Macros video

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Sunday, June 03, 2007

Warner Bros. Animation shutters facilities

On Thursday, the day after we recorded the latest Cartoon Geeks podcast, Warner Bros. Animation closed its Sherman Oaks facility. We know of this thanks to Paul Dini, aka "The King of Breakfast," who blogged about it last night. Go read his LJ entry, it's very instructive.

I really feel bad for the people who are currently trying to make a living in animation in LA. People are so desperate now, that many folks who are on staff with the Lucasfilm Animation CGI Clone Wars series have actually relocated to Singapore... SINGAPORE, WTF!... for the duration of the 100 episodes Lucasfilm intends to produce. It was common practice to send a bilingual employee as the representative to the Japanese or Korean studio back during the go-go years of American animation, to keep an eye on the overseas production, but actually having artists relocate overseas? That is brand new. Except for a few artists who are also Otaku, speak fluent Japanese, and who now are a part of the Japanese animation scene, this sort of thing never happened much.

This doesn't bode well for American animation, folks. I wouldn't be surprised if, a few years into the future, animation returns to the US. However, what may return would not be recognizable: basically non-union "overseas" Flash animation work for Japanese and European producers. The tables would be turned completely. Is this what people are still paying $30,000 a year to go to Cal Arts and study animation for? I didn't think so.

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