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History In The Round

Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman takes a look at the DVD as a source of animation history.

When I first began my research into animation history, there were relatively few sources of information available. A scattering of books and a smattering of fanzines served as the font of knowledge for the field. Unless one was willing to call or write individual animators or directors (by standard telephone or snail-mail, for my younger readers), one had to make do with the meager research done by others. This research often turned out to be compilations of who directed what film or short, and perhaps a line or two about the artisans that worked on it. Occasional comments and anecdotes from a few talented individuals provided a dim insight into the making of a film or the inspirations that lay behind it. Frequently, the same quotes seemed to circulate from one book to another like some truncated dissemination of gospel. O, happy the lot of those who take up the charge today; the amount of information available on the topic of animation is staggering, and the sources more plentiful than ever. One of the best sources available, which did not even exist until a scant few years ago, comes to us from an unexpected domain: The world of home entertainment.

This special Toy Story DVD set offers loads of extras. © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

This special Toy Story DVD set offers loads of extras. © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

Enter the Disc...

Sometime during 1994, some ten years after the music CD gained widespread acceptance in America, a Hollywood ad hoc committee met to discuss the creation of standards for putting movies into a radically new format. The Digital Versatile Disc (DVD) was about to come into reality; engineers at Phillips, Sony, Toshiba and Matsushita were all making contributions to the finished product. The result was a single-layer disc 4.75 inches in diameter, but oh, what that tiny disc could do! That single DVD could hold the equivalent information stored on 3,400 floppy discs (or 5,300,000 pages of text). One hundred and thirty-five minutes of video plus nine hours of music could be embedded in its micropits, all waiting to be released by the scan of an infa-red laser. The thin, digital donut became available in Japan in 1996, and was introduced in seven U.S. cities the following year. By 1997, DVDs were available across the country. The first film transferred to DVD was not an animated feature (it was, in fact, A Hard Day's Night), but it was not long before toons were dancing in the laser beams as well.

DVDs are, of course, popular for their amazingly sharp pictures, flexible formats (such as letterbox or widescreen), and theater-quality sound, courtesy of 5.1 channel Dolby Digital. Older animated features transferred to DVD can be startling in their appearance, as if the film stock had been dipped in some digital Fountain of Youth that restored its lustrous colors and crisp details to breathless perfection. The enhanced soundtracks and vibrant appearance of animated features, new or old, are a great gift to animation fans, but in some cases the extra features come close to eclipsing them; this is where the old order changeth and a new way of reporting, recording and collecting animation history begins. An increasing number of DVDs now tell the entire history of a film from inception to release; many DVDs embellish this history, for example, with soundtracks that include running commentary by the creators, writers and directors, if that is what the listener chooses to hear. If one would rather enjoy the film (in up to 32 languages) without extraneous comments, there are typically interviews included on the menu anyway.

A typical example: Disney's Toy Story: The Ultimate Toy Box. In addition to the two DVDs that contain the features (both of which contain added material), there is a third supplemental disc containing an additional nineteen features. Among them are treats that are of specific note to the animation historian: Story Development, Abandoned Concepts, Original Treatments, Storyboard Pitch, and The History of Toy Story and Toy Story 2. Disney, once resistant to even the idea of putting its films on DVD (and then only doing so without extras), is emerging as one of the most prodigious distributors of added features per DVD. Disney is not alone in this regard, however. Purchasing Columbia TriStar's Heavy Metal gives one access to many of the same features plus the option to view the entire film in rough cut. Other DVDs feature complete production histories, and yet others take historians to another level entirely. The release of Beany and Cecil: The Special Edition (2000) is an unbelievable tour of Bob Clampett's non-Warners career including unsold projects, "lost" interviews and kinescopes of his puppetry. Since Clampett was reputedly an obsessive packrat, the amount of historical information available on one disc is stupendous indeed. TOON Magazine reviewer Thomas Reed called this artifact "the most compelling reason for you to buy a DVD player" and for diehard animation fans, this is likely true. Jerry Beck (a prominent historian in his own right) noted that this DVD "deserves an award for all its treasures and presentation."

You are privvy to the rough cut version of Heavy Metal on this DVD. © 1999 layout and design Columbia TriStar Home Video. All rights reserved.

You are privvy to the rough cut version of Heavy Metal on this DVD. © 1999 layout and design Columbia TriStar Home Video. All rights reserved.

Extra, Extra, Extra

The above descriptions are not intended to promote any individual DVD; they simply serve to highlight where animation history may be headed in the future. Added features (an item carried over from laserdiscs) are already replacing one form of historical record: animation fanzines, magazines and periodicals. Although these publications have never been numerous, there are fewer of them than ever in 2001. Recent attempts such as Animation Planet and AnimeFantastique have come and gone, and those left standing claim neither wide circulation nor considerable profits. There are many possible reasons for the demise of the animation fanzine, such as competition from non-animation magazines (such as Starlog) that also carry features about animation, the proliferation of animation-related Websites and a tough publishing market. That discussion is beyond the scope of our subject; the fact is, DVDs are doing a great deal of the work that these print publications used to do.

Case in point: The premier issue of AnimeFantastique contained an eleven-page feature article on DreamWorks' production The Prince of Egypt. The three co-directors, Simon Wells, Steve Hicks and Brenda Chapman, are interviewed. Additional features include a look at special effects, a profile of songwriter Stephen Schwartz, and a piece on direction and production design under Darek Gogol. The Signature Collection Edition of the DVD has most of this and more, including a commentary by the directors on one version of the soundtrack. In buying the DVD, one can gain as many insights into the film as a dozen print articles could provide, simply due to wider access to the cast and crew and the amount of storage available for these extra features.

Paper Don't Fret

The DVD cannot, and will not, replace print history entirely. For one thing, not all animation will find its way to DVD. As many fans have lamented, the preponderance of Harveytoons, Terrytoons and Paramount/Famous shorts have yet to find their way to VHS. Many of the leading lights of American animation's past are no longer available to lend their thoughts to the DVDs that may someday feature their reconstructed works. We can only guess at what The Making of "Mr. Bug Goes to To wn" might have looked like, and we will certainly never have a running commentary by Dave Fleischer as the movie rolls along. Unless an older studio (such as Disney) has massive, all-inclusive archives, even brief documentaries and snippets of the cast and crew at work are unlikely to add much to a DVD's features. Also, DVDs are non-interpretive artifacts; they are rather pragmatic in their presentation and so there are no opportunities for external critique or historical revisionism -- the very concepts that make film history an exciting, vital subject. Perhaps this is simply because DVDs, as noted earlier, do belong to the world of home entertainment. The historian is not likely to encounter critical or analytic material within the disc's micropits.

This leads to my next point: The history offered on animation DVDs can be voluminous but by no means all-inclusive. I have yet to see the DVD which offers added features such as "Production Nightmares," "Personality Conflicts, Squabbles and Resignations," "Obscenity-Laden Budget Meetings" and "Behind-The-Scenes Marketing and Tie-In Negotiations." In other words, the history we get from DVDs is likely to be sanitized, rather like a hi-tech version of The Reluctant Dragon (made while the Disney studio was gripped by a rancorous strike) since no production is without its problems. There are features on some DVDs that highlight deleted scenes, but we are far more likely to see what was done successfully than see the painful mistakes and failures along the way. I, for one, believe that these conflicts, difficulties and pitfalls are an inherent part of a film's history and a direct influence on its final form.

The Collector's Editon of A Bug's Life offers an in-depth look at the animation process for students of the art form. © Disney Enterprises, Inc./Pixar Animation Studios. All rights reserved.

The Collector's Editon of A Bug's Life offers an in-depth look at the animation process for students of the art form. © Disney Enterprises, Inc./Pixar Animation Studios. All rights reserved.

It must also be noted that some DVDs fare better than others where added features are concerned. Some, such as the recent release of Fritz The Cat, offer virtually nothing; a pity, since the mercurial Mr. Bakshi and many among his crew are still alive to tell the tale. Other DVDs feature endless trailers, sing-alongs that will please no one above the age of four, and interactive games that are scant competition for Xbox. March of 2000 saw a slew of angry customers besiege Disney following the release of Tarzan on DVD: The Mouse made it impossible to skip through previews that were basically shills for other Disney features (and the Disney Website). Only after four minutes of promotional material were viewers finally allowed to control their menus. According to an article by Greg Sandoval of CNET News (3/2/2000), "A Disney executive, who asked to remain anonymous, acknowledged that the film didn't include a menu option for the ads and that the company has received complaints about it. However, the executive defended the ads as a benefit to consumers." (This, it will be recalled, is the same company that released Toy Story: The Ultimate Toy Box, one of the most comprehensive historical documents on the making of an animated film; tant mieux, tant pis.)

The DVD, then, may not be a perfect tool for historians, but it is an awesome one nonetheless. A budding animation writer currently in college has countless methods of research available to him or her that the seminal animation historians of the late 1960s did not. The Digital Versatile Disc has, perhaps unwittingly, become one of them. Many children may watch these added features and decide to become animators or voice artists but if we are fortunate, there is a young Thucydides out there tonight watching the Collector's Edition of A Bug's Life. He swears to himself that someday he'll visit that studio, meet those people and find answers to questions that remain after watching how the film was created. Perhaps even as I write he is thinking up those unique inquiries that children frequently floor us with, elated by the fantasy of talking with John Lasseter himself as rows of animators puzzle out fractals in the background and voice actors arrive for another session of recording.

And he will feel perfectly at home. After all, he has been there before, without leaving the comforts of his own living room.

Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.