The Venture Bros. – Nostalgia Done Right

I’ve recently caught up on the latest season of The Venture Bros. The show is currently the longest running on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim. The show revolves around the Venture family consisting of Dr. Venture, a struggling scientist living in the shadow of his late ‘Super Scientist’ father; His two sons who have spent their lives with little socialisation outside the family and so severely lack basic socialisation skills; and Brock Samson, their trigger happy bodyguard and OSI agent (Similar to the American CSI). The family has their arch-nemesis ‘The Monarch’ who besides his butterfly obsession has little clear motivation to hate Dr. Venture, although that doesn’t seem to stop him from trying.

What interested me in the show is it’s vintage comic and animation asthetic. This combined with the very NSFW humour that Adult Swim is known for. The show is similar in many ways to its contemporary Archer, although the shows differ in their theme and emphasis of animation. Where Archer is known for its simple, almost digital cut-out animation style, The Venture Bros. relies more heavily on traditional 2D.

The appearance of side characters clearly inspired by Scooby Doo and Johnny Quest drives the emphasis on nostalgia home. It’s no secret that nostalgia is a big swayer in production funding right now but it is rarely done correctly. The slew of 3D/live action remakes of Disney classics for example are largely forgetable. Meanwhile the now iconic Samurai Jack came back after 13 years for a final season and did so strikingly well. In my opinion nostalia is a matter of managing the expectations of fans of the original product while still innovating and suprising them, and others who aren’t aquainted with the source material. This is never an easy thing to do, and deeper the enthusiasm of the fan base, the higher (and usually more diverse) the expectations.

The Venture Bros. side steps this by commenting on periods and genres over individual products. This has the advantage of exciting viewers that grew up reading and watching similar work but not giving them an objective point of comparison. The adult language in the show also adds to this as the people that grew up in the 70s, 80s, 90s are much older, and so more matured themes suits its audience well.

I hope that to see many more shows like this that get this balance right in the future.

Bob’s Burgers – The American Family

Each generation in the United States has been identified and interpreted by its media and animation is no exception. This has produced shows like the Flintstones, the Jetsons, Family Guy, the Simpsons and American Dad. these attempt to reflect the realities or aspirations of the family unit of their time. Bob’s Burgers fits very well into this category of shows.

The show revolves around the Belcher family (Bob, Linda, Tina, Gene and Louise) that runs a small burger restaurant. By doing so it is comparable to The Simpsons in it’s attempt at showing a middle income household in the US. What is different is the aspirations of its characters. Where Homer Simpson’s jobs over the years, nuclear plant worker, snow plow man, astronaut reflect the baby boomer generation and the sense of feeling trapped in dead-end jobs. Bob Belcher on the other hand is a small business owner in a creative field, and there are many episodes that revolve around his passion for the craft of cooking, burn out, escaping into side hobbies, and this shows the aspirations of middle income families in the US today, to find fulfillment in the their work.

Where the shows diverge is their understanding of race. Where the Simpsons immitates the reliance on racial stereotypes for humour some more dated shows were known for. Bob’s Burgers shows a more maturing understanding of race that a browning America is beginning to voice. This is joked about through characters in the show asking Bob what his race is, and a clear answer is never given. Although the show doesn’t confront issues of race in America as directly as shows like Craig of the Creek does. Another comparison is gender. Where Marge and Lisa Simpson are largely dutiful and studious, Linda, Tina and Louise Belcher are more diverse in their voices (Linda is qwirky, Tina sexualises boys all the time and Louise is a badass). Gene Belcher is often shown to be sensitive and creative, compare this to Bart Simpson’s bratty boy stereotype. To say Bob’s Burgers is avant garde in confronting gender and race would be an overreach, to me these shows are always made to appeal to large audiences.

Overall I love the wit and humor of the show’s writing, and wait to see more episodes in the future.

Albatross soup – A mesmerizing riddle

A man walks off a boat. He walks into a restaurant, orders the albatross soup. He takes one bit, takes out a gun and kills himself. Why did the man kill himself?

Winnie Cheung’s psychedelic short film, animated by Fiona Smyth, revolves around this riddle – from the enigmatic question over puzzled attempts by 50 different people to solve it to its haunting solution. The chorus of voices tries to narrow down what happened by asking the narrator yes / no questions. After receiving a series of affirmative responses to their questions, the group ultimately figures out why the man killed himself.

The albatross’ role in this mysterious story is clearly no coincidence. The Oxford English Dictionary notes that the albatross is “a source of frustration or guilt; an encumbrance (in allusion to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner)”.[1]  The bird is a symbol of doom in Coleridge’s poem[2] from 1798:

Ah! well a-day! What evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.

In the riddle, the man feels insurmountable guilt when eating the soup. The group that tries to solve it identifies the reason for the man’s feelings step by step. Cheung’s process of making the movie followed a similar path. In an interview with Vimeo[3], the director described it as follows:

I knew that I had the right ingredients to make a fun animated film from both a narrative and technique perspective, but I didn’t really know what the process was going to be like. Like the riddle, I had to figure it out as I went along.

The result is mesmerizing. The animation depicting more or less plausible attempts to solve the riddle in vibrant colours and with the psychedelic swirls make it a visual experience that is definitely worth watching.

[1] https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/albatross

[2] https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/an-albatross-around-ones-neck.html

[3] https://laughingsquid.com/albatross-soup-winnie-cheung/

Perspectives

I’m going to compare two talks we attended at our university that were problematic for me and a classmate and talking about how our perspectives influenced us having to confront or warn our classmates as a reaction. The first was by a former student who graduated a few years ago and had gone on to create incredible work, work with big names and start a small studio. She showed her work, talked about her inspirations and gave a workshop. While she was showing her inspirations she spoke about  an animator and described her work in the 70s as her main inspiration. She showed a film by her and we soon realised why her work wasn’t known so well. The character design if made by Disney in the 30s would be on the banned animation list for relying on racist African-American stereotypes. When I asked her whether she saw anything problematic with the design she became defensive and attempted to justify it by saying the animator was one of the few female animators at the time. Which is fair point, only in my opinion one doesn’t justify the other. A similar point came up when discussing Moana in another talk. Having dealt with more direct and corrosive forms of racism before, I consider this as a form of media enabling mindsets.

Another talk was by a young puppet animator, his work has been recognised by many big festivals. It was evident with the talk that he was skilled at his work, gave us many tips on techniques to use. But it soon became evident that he was very into promoting his name throughout the presentation. My classmate was uncomfortable after the presentation and said all his inspirations for work were men, and would only refer to women as girls, in a slightly demeaning tone. My classmate being trans clearly more directly understood the consequences of such subtler forms of sexism. The only consolation I could provide was to learn the techniques and skill and nothing more. Overall I’m glad to have a diverse class to study with and to understand differing perspectives. Hopefully if and when we’re out in the world we will be more informed and sensitive than our predecessors in what we say through our work and how we say it.

The Breadwinner

The Breadwinner is a beautifully crafted animated drama by the Irish studio Cartoon Saloon. The Oscar nominated feature directed by Nora Twomey is based on Deborah Ellis’ bestselling children’s novel with the same title.

The film is set in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan where radical Islamic laws prevail that severely restrict the freedom of girls and women. For example, they are not allowed to leave the house alone and don’t receive any education above the age of eight. This also means that life for Parvana is anything but happy go lucky. The 11 year old girl lives with her impoverished family in Kabul. When her father is arrested as an alleged “enemy of Islam”, Parvana, her mother, her older sister and her little brother face existential challenges. In order to buy food on the market and to make a little bit of money for her family by offering services such as translations or letter writing, the girl camouflages herself with a short hairstyle and appropriate clothing as a boy. During the day Parvana does odd jobs with an equally disguised friend, in the evening she escapes the bitter reality by telling her brother fairy tales about a boy who fights against an elephant king in the Hindukush Mountains. However, her desire to visit her father in prison seems to be unattainable…

Director Nora Twomey stages the Taliban dictatorship as a horror scenario, depicting also physical violence which culminates in some tense moments. The pastel and earth-coloured images are full of dust and haze, the grey facades and the melancholy score by Mychael and Jeff Danna create a sense of being locked-in. In contrast, things become more vivid and colourful in the fairy tale that Parvana tells her brother. Carefully told, The Breadwinner is a heart-warming portrayal of the oppressive discrimination against Afghan girls and women by the Taliban.

Talk by animation director Michaël Dudok de Wit

I recently had the fortune to attend a talk by Michaël Dudok de Wit at LCC, the now legendary director of Academy Award winning feature and short films ‘The Red Turtle (2016)’ and ‘Father And Daughter (2000)’. He showed his work and discussed his process of developing a story.

He began by showing his advertising work and ‘Father and Daughter’, the beautifully crafted short. Then he talked about being approached by Studio Ghibli to make a collaborative feature. He discussed the early development of the pitch he showed in Japan. His early experimentation with mediums and techniques. He spoke about his inspirations in old French book covers, and the decision to make it semi realistic.

Michaël Dudok spoke about the trip he took to an island in the Caribbean to do field research. And stressed how important research is to make a successful film and one that has a sense of authenticity. He showed footage from his trip and how that translated into ideas for the film. This included wading birds, the crab, the scenery and an encounter with a turtle that led to the main idea for the film.

The Red Turtle Shot Development
The Red Turtle Shot Development

He discussed his return to France and creating a studio from scratch for the film. He stressed how important it was to have the right team to work with as this could make or break a film. He also spoke candidly about the long time they had to find the perfect team and to fulfil needed roles.

Then he spoke about developing the final assets for the film, the different variations on the characters, the colour palette including that of the turtle and even a map and structure of the island. The island structure allowed him to create logical lighting for the island depending on the time of day. He also spoke about creating the many beautiful environmental effects for the film.

All in all it was an incredible experience to get insight into the inner workings of a well crafted animation film.

‘Costume Quest’ and talking about otherness

‘Costume Quest’ is a new cartoon by now legendary Burbank, CA animation studio ‘Cartoon Frederator’. The studio is known for creating shows like ‘Adventure Time’ and ‘The Fairly OddParents’.

Screenshot from the new cartoon show.

The show is an adaptation of a role-playing video game by the same name and is beautifully animated with a muted color palette and wonderful score. I was enjoying the show with many people comparing it to ‘Gravity Falls’ which has become a catch all for any new cartoon that shows the potential to be good.

Image from the original game.

The show revolves around four children that find halloween costumes that allow them to transform into their avatars and this is used to defeat ‘Repugniants’ that are monsters that become powerful from eating nougat. It’s a fairly straightforward ‘defeat the bad guys’ plot. This is until the show gives us the origin story for these ‘Repugniants’, In the episode ‘Ghosting’ we get this long exposition explaining where the monsters came from, “Since the beginning of time monsters have crossed over into our world. In the dead of night portals open between our world and countless others. Now most of the monsters that come through these portals are good, and only want to start a new life here on earth, but 100 years ago some monsters arrived with more diabolical intentions. The Repugniants, they came to Auburn Hollow looking to steal every last ounce of our famous candy nougat, nougat transforms them makes them more powerful, with the nougat they could have formed an army strong enough to take over the universe but 4 brave kids in magical costumes stepped up and stopped them. The Repugniants were defeated and ran back home, but some of them however decided to stay and complete the mission no matter what!”

This early episode introduces a very different dimension to the ‘monsters’ in the story and bears striking similarities to the current narrative around how illegal immigrants are coming into the United States. It may be that I am reading too much into this, the newest episode reveals that the costume shop owner who is helping the children in one of the ‘good monsters’, but is scared to reveal this to all the children.

Graves, Tombs and Cremation grounds

In preparation for my final project which is based around the tomb of Jamali-Kamali (Jamali Dehlavi being a 16th century Indian Sufi poet and Kamali being an unknown person he is buried next to), I have been thinking about eternality and what societies and religions choose to value.

Unknown Soldier from World War I being taken from the USS Olympia at the Washington Navy Yard and transported to the US Capitol to lay in state. On November 11, 1921 the body was intered at Arlington National Cemetery (photographed by E.B. Thompson)

There are the tombs of unknown soldiers in the US or the remembrance poppy flower pins in the UK. The zoroastrian Fire Temples where bodies are consumed by vultures, the tantric buddhist Gompas where monks are laid in seated meditative postures with people going to look for their reincarnations and there is the ‘Capsula Mundi’ project by the Italian designers that comes on the heels of the environmental movement.

There is also the famous ‘Dia de los Muertos’ celebration in Mexico that has been adapted by various films such as ‘The Book of Life (2014)’ and ‘Coco (2017)’ or games like the now iconic ‘Grim Fandango (1998)’ a click-and-point adventure a beautiful late 90s noir low poly 3D aesthetic.

There is late British author Terry Pratchett’s ‘Discworld’ series, which injects the fantasy world with heavy dose of dry British humor. Here DEATH appears as a character, has wants and needs, feels loss, regret, boredom and even adopts a child. The series has been adapted into animation and games that attempt to capture this unique perspective.

When my grandmother passed away a few years ago, she had a Sikh/Hindu funeral where her body was burned on a pyre by my father and uncle with my either family standing around, crying and singing prayers. To me seeing her body disappear into the flame and then picking up her ashes including pieces of unburnt bones with my hands was part of the healing process and getting closure. I know the thought of this would irk most western people where death is hidden behind closed coffins and make-up and cremation urns. So now in India there is a debate over a traditional funeral or an electric cremation.

Chaitanya Tamhane and Somnath Pal’s short ‘Death of a father’ follows Pal’s experiences when his father passes away and is burned using electric cremation.

The film I’m working on is around an Indian Sufi tomb, which has a complex relationship with death to put it mildly, I hope I am able to do it justice.

Paradise

I had a brief obsession with the animation work made at the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) a few years ago. This is where I learned about the work of Norman McLaren, Caroline Leaf and Ishu Patel. Norman McLaren founded NFB, and was introduced to me as the father of experimental animation. His student Caroline Leaf went on to invent three new fields of animation through her three films. Ishu Patel another student of McLaren’s was somewhat of a mystery to me. He is considered one of the fathers of Indian animation, with numerous awards and Oscar nominations under his belt.

I found his work to be initially unapproachable. To me it was far too esoteric and high minded, something to come out of the halls of Baroda. More recently on the advice of a professor I rewatched ‘Paradise’ (1984) which is as emblematic as any of Patel’s works. It follows a king looking at his bird flying around and morphing into different forms and colors. This happens in a medival Indian palace. In many ways this is reminiscent of Norman McLaren’s ‘Pas de deux’ (1968) where previous images trail behind creating a sort of trail behind the character. This shows the viewer the spacing in between frames and creates a dream-like effect through the shot.

The backgrounds in ‘Paradise’ looks as though they are using a black film with holes poked through and a light placed behind which creates a strange sort of shine. With the eerie music this collectively creates a poetic and atmospheric story.

Super Drags!

There has been an exponential rise in the visibility of the LGBTQI community in recent years and a large part of this has been the increasing representation of the community in the media.

Shows like ‘Will and Grace’ and ‘Rupaul’s Drag Race’ have not only broken new grounds but have been wildly successful, especially Bianca del Rio, my heroine.

As Richard Dunphy put it “Perhaps the most radical aspect of queer politics was its claim not only to transcend the homo/hetero boundary but to do so in such a way as to challenge the sexual regulation and repression of heterosexual desire, above all female desire. Queer politics, it was claimed, had a lot to teach those accustomed to the narrow confines of ‘male’ and ‘female’ heterosexual roles in relationships. The re-working of notions of monogamy and the send-up of marriage through queer weddings, the greater sexual adventurism, the rejection of the concept of gay men and lesbians as ‘victims’ in favour of assertiveness and redefinition, and the emphasis on the creation of more egalitarian relationships in the domestic, sexual and social spheres, were all cited as examples of how queer could contribute to a new sexual agenda of empowerment.”

So I was very excited when I heard about Netflix’s new animated series “Super Drags”. The show is abound with sexual innuendo, and humor typical of a drag performance in the West Village. The story revolves around three gay co-workers at a department store that lead double lives as superhero drag queens, fighting crime and other forces like an evil queen and a conservative politician.

The show not only breaks new ground but challenges ideas in the community, of beauty and racial bias and outside of gay conversion camps and the increasing politicization of the community. I hope the show does well and is able to continue for more seasons.

Dunphy, R. (2000) Sexual Politics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.