Friday, October 21, 2011

Video Vault: Phineas and Ferb Edition

I talk about Phineas and Ferb way too much on this blog...and elsewhere, too, to be frank. Here, have a random video of series creators Dan Povenmire and Jeff "Swampy" Marsh rapping about how they make an episode.

Marsh recently told the BBC the following: “If you’re doing something that you love, however much money you are making, it will always be enough. If you’re doing something you don’t love, no matter how much money you’re making, it will never be enough.” This, if anything, proves that the P&F team love what they’re doing. Then again, why wouldn’t they? As a special bonus, I asked our unofficial Phineas and Ferb pal Aliki Grafft to help identify the people at the P&F team that are seen in this video. Here's who she could pick out. (Check out my interview with her if you haven't already.)

The rap is mostly sung by Dan and Swampy.
The first person you see is Mike Singleton, who is a Storyboard Revisionist on the show. (when the guys sing "24/7")
Then you see the back of Melinda Leasure's head who is married to the real Ferb* (no joke). 
On the part, "...and sometimes I even take my sketchbook on vacation" you see Mike Diederich who is a Story Artist/Writer
On "time to get serious and make with the funny" that is Bernie Petterson, another Story Artist/Writer
At 0:38 it's Leo Pinero, Storyboard Revisionist
Then followed by Rob Hughes, one of the show's directors, at 0:39
At 0:44 "we start with a premise" that is the writer's room, and you have Martin Olson, Scott Peterson, and Jim Bernstein
0:52 is Director of Original Series Jill Sanford
1:06 is Dorothea Schoentag, a painter
1:14 is me (Aliki T. Grafft) and Joe Orrantia who is a story artist/writer like me (also my former partner)
1:27 is also me and Joe
1:34 is the back of director Jay Lender's head
1:35 is Story Artist/Writer Kim Roberson throwing the cereal
1:36 is Rob Hughes again
1:41 is Kyle Menke, another Storyboard Artist/Writer
1:42 are the Voiceover Directors
1:54 is Anne Harting who is the animatic editor
1:55 is the Prop Designer, Anthony Vukojevich
1:55 is one of our Character Designers, Celeste Moreno
1:56 is a Background Designer, Plamen Christov
1:59 is Art Director and Emmy winner Jill Daniels**
2:07 are timers Theresa Wiseman, Barbara Dourmashkin and Mitch Rochon
2:09 is checker Wendy Jacobsmeyer
2:14 is Plamen and the other BG designer Brian Woods (who also won an Emmy**)
2:15 is Teresa Ferragamo is the production secretary (Dan and Swampy's amazing assistant)
2:20 is the Legal Department and S & P (Standards and Practices)
2:22 is Herb Moore who is a Timing Supervisor
2:25 is Mark Brammeier a Production Manager and Lance Lecompte who is a Production Supervisor
2:31 is Ted Supa who is an Editor
2:34 is Natasha Kopp who is the Line Producer
2:37 is Sue Perotto who is the Retake Director
2:40 is Composer Danny Jacob all the way to the left with some very talented musicians
2:41 Sound Effects
2:42 Audio Mixing
2:44 is the casting department (Sara Goldberg, Jamie Green, Dave Wright among them)
2:45 is Kenny Kweens, Production Associate
2:49 is Antoine Guilbaud, story artist/writer, and Kaz Prapuolenis with the mirror, also a story artist/writer

*Ferb is the nickname of an actual friend of Dan and Swampy's, who lent his nickname to Phineas's stepbrother.
**Ms. Daniels and Mr. Woods just won an Emmy for their background work on the "Wizard of Odd" episode. Congratulations to them!

Thanks, Aliki!

PHINEAS AND FERB ©Disney. No ownership intended or implied.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Still Not Easy Being Green

The Hollywood Reporter recently published a very interesting article regarding the new Muppets movie and the two risks Disney is taking with it, both of which are interesting to look at.

The first is the Muppets themselves and how Disney has treated them- or rather, until recently mistreated them. Michael Eisner wanted the Muppets badly in 1990, but negotiations were impeded by Jim Henson's untimely death in May of that year. Negotiations went onward, but eventually went nowhere due to a sticking point discussed at length in Michael Davis's book Street Gang: Eisner wanted the Sesame Street characters to be part of the deal. Henson did not want the Sesame Muppets used for commercial purposes and wanted the rights to the characters to revert to the Children's Television Workshop upon his death. However, this was never formally written out. Eisner and Disney eventually got the Muppets, but long after they actually wanted them. CTW (now Sesame Workshop) bought the rights to the Sesame characters in 2000, and Disney bought the rights to Kermit and the Muppet Show cast four years later. Eisner was forced out shortly thereafter, and the Muppets languished at a company that had no idea what to do with them. The characters haven't had a big-screen outing for over a decade, with their last feature, Muppets from Space, produced while still under Henson ownership. Disney's only major projects featuring the characters have been a mediocre made-for-TV movie retelling The Wizard of Oz and a thankfully more Muppety-feeling Christmas special. Thankfully, the Muppets were brought back into the public eye in style a few years ago, reappearing in various realms of entertainment- including the Internet, becoming the talk of the Web with a series of viral videos, including the now-legendary "Bohemian Rhapsody", which almost made the Queen hit the #1 UK Christmas single- a big thing in music over there- for a record third time (the first being its original release, then its resurgence in popularity after appearing in Wayne's World).

Disney seems to be doing a good job reintroducing the Muppets as far as promotion for this film is concerned, both for those who know them and those who have never heard of them. But there's another interesting factor involved and it's the second risk: some of the retired Muppet old guard are concerned with how the characters are being depicted in trailers and teasers for the film, believing that Kermit and company are doing and saying things that they- or the late Henson- would not particularly do. Perhaps the most well-known of these, Frank Oz, the original Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear, recently told the British press that he felt the script didn't "respect the characters."

"What would X do/say", both in the terms of an actual person no longer with us such as Jim Henson or a fictional character, is a question that I would imagine comes up a lot in discussing well-known franchise characters. I agree that Kermit buying a mansion and the Muppets breaking up because of his greed does seem out-of-character, but from what we've seen in the trailers, the basic concept of the film is that the Muppets have languished for years and are staging their comeback, which is what they're trying to do in real life with this movie. It may be a bizarre plot decision, but as a parallel to the Muppets's real-life languishing, I guess it works. As for Fozzie's fart shoes, it's clearly a joke to appeal to the young kids who go for that sort of humor, but I think it's justified "in-universe" in that it's called out for what it is- a cheap joke. And that's sort of Fozzie's thing. He's the type who'll do anything to get a laugh, so why wouldn't he resort to what's basically a wearable whoopie cushion?

The other thing I found interesting in the article is that Disney may put forward the "Muppet Man" biopic if this film does well. A biopic of Jim Henson sounds like a winner, and the script was the darling of Hollywood when it circulated in late 2009, but the script has a number of things against it as well. The first being that the scriptwriter basically admitted he made most of it up and used Wikipedia for a lot of his research. The other being a storytelling device used in the film that the Muppets actually exist in a sort of alternate universe- perhaps in Henson's imagination?- and Kermit's life parallels Henson's. (Kermit and Henson have a long discussion with each other at the hospital before his death.) At one point, Kermit is an alcoholic fed up with how his relationship with Miss Piggy is going. I'm sure Disney would be fine with the former, but not so much with the latter. I'd imagine the script would have to go through a lot of revisions if it went forward.

I can understand the fears of some of the retired Muppet veterans, but looking at the trailers and promotional appearances as a whole, I think the Muppets's heart and offbeat sense of humor are where they always have been. Hopefully, Disney's all-out promotion of the movie pays off in the long run. This may be a risk, but hopefully it's one that turns out well for both Disney and the Muppets- in both their and our universes.

THE MUPPETS ©Disney. No ownership intended or implied. Photo by Patrick Wymore/Disney

Thoughts on Theatre: Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark

Playing at the Foxwoods Theatre, 213 West 42nd Street, New York. For tickets and additional information, visit Reviewed October 19, 2011 (afternoon show).
Directed by Philip Wm. McKinley; Original Direction by Julie Taymor. Book by Julie Taymor, Glen Berger & Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. Music and Lyrics by Bono and The Edge. By arrangement with Marvel Entertainment.

After months of rewrites, accidents, and punchlines, the most expensive musical ever made has made its way to 42nd Street, a locale just as flashy as the show itself. And how does it fare? Surprisingly better than I expected.

As the tale of the Marvel Comics hero is brought to the stage, the first act for the most part faithfully retells the well-known origin story of how Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider which gave him superhuman abilities, as he learns the hard way to use them to help others rather than for personal gain- "with great power comes great responsibility." Norman Osborn, the scientist whose escaped genetically-enhanced spider caused the transformation, becomes obsessed with human-animal hybrids and transforms himself into the sinister-yet-silly madman known as the Green Goblin, who, along with his fellow scientists he has kidnapped and similarly mutated into a team known as the Sinister Six, start terrorizing the city. Peter Parker must now make a delicate balance between his ordinary life and his would-be love Mary Jane and his self-appointed duties as the savior of New York City. Is it possible for him to do both?

There's no doubt what the answer to that question is, but the true test of any musical is not what happens, but how it's told. And Spider-Man does it very well. The visuals are impressive and creative, with a bit of comic-book flair to them and a tiny bit of comic-book campiness- but not too much. Color and minimalist comic-like set design is used to good effect, from the yellows of the bullies and the walls of Peter's high school to the blue and pink houses that match the clothes of Peter and MJ as they walk home from school to the black and white of the city in a fun sequence features Spider-Man fighting crime throughout the city with the bad guys represented by cartoonish costumed actors with oversized heads to the red and blue which matches Spidey's suit that covers the city as he becomes the hero of all...well, mostly all. The show seems to be set in modern times yet has a "timeless" quality- the boisterous J. Jonah Jameson, the newspaper editor who prints negative stories about Spider-Man while at the same time employing Parker to take pictures of the "menace", remarks that print is losing ground to bloggers and Facebook, yet with a cadre of '60s-style secretaries on typewriters in unison behind him. And the show itself seems to have a bit of fun with its stylistic choices- when Parker battles a wrestler before he learns he's going down the wrong path, the ring announcer remarks that Parker is tossing him around like an inflatable doll...which he is, since it is one.

With the exception of the Green Goblin's number that opens the second act and Spider-Man's leitmotif played throughout the musical, none of the songs are really stick-in-your-head, but they do a good job of bringing the story along. Patrick Page in particular is entertaining as the Green Goblin, hamming it up as only he can and being responsible for most of the goofy-yet-enjoyable humor in the musical, be it singing about "a 65-million-dollar trainwreck" (referring, of course, to both himself and the musical) as he comes out into the audience, performing a violent rewrite of "I'll Take Manhattan" on top of the Chrysler Building, or trying to leave a message for Jameson in one of the most prolonged and funniest of the comic sequences.

And then there's the flying. The element that everyone was talking about, both before and after the incidents, it's just, for lack of a better word, really cool to see Spider-Man fly across the stage, no matter what your age. The climax of the musical, in which Spidey and the Green Goblin soar across the city in a final duel, is arguably worth the price of admission alone. My advice is to sit in the center level of the theater, which has been renamed the "Flying Circle" for this production for good reason. It gives you the best view of the aerial action, and the web-slinger himself even flies past and crouches on the outskirts of the area a number of times, much to the delight of the audience.

I didn't see the show in its original form, so I'm not sure what has changed from it. But it's clear that the new team that took Julie Taymor's place was able to work out most of the kinks. There are still a few flaws, however, the biggest of which is a remnant of Taymor's original version- Arachne, a character based on the Greek mythological figure who originally had a much larger role, but in the final version whose legend serves as a prologue and appears a few times throughout the musical as sort of a god-like figure to give Peter the strength he needs to carry on when he's in a deep funk. For the most part she's easily ignorable, but she still seems out of place when compared to the whole package.

Some people may be turned off by the slight comic-book campiness and occasional goofy humor, but let's be honest. This isn't Shakespeare. This is a musical based on a comic book about a man who wears a spider costume and flies around buildings. If you think about it, it's rather silly. But it's also, again for lack of a better term, pretty cool. You pretty much know what you're getting. If you're looking for a musical that's equal parts spectacle and silliness with a flashy visual flair, you can't go wrong with Spider-Man. The flashy, tourist-oriented swarth of 42nd Street and Broadway is perhaps the perfect place for it- if all goes well, it will hopefully become a tourist attraction and a New York City institution. And given what it took for it to get there, that wouldn't particularly be a bad thing.


Thursday, October 6, 2011

The War of the Simpsons

The Simpsons get cancelled? That's unpossible!

In a memorable episode of The Simpsons, Troy McClure (as voiced by the late great Phil Hartman) posed a question regarding the series: "Who knows what adventures they'll have between now and the time the show becomes unprofitable?" Apparently, that time may be coming sooner than expected.

This week, it was reported that 20th Century Fox has demanded the cast of The Simpsons- Dan Castelleneta (Homer/Krusty/Grampa/Barney/Groundskeeper Willie/others), Julie Kavner (Marge/Patty/Selma), Nancy Cartwright (Bart/Nelson/Ralph), Yeardley Smith (Lisa), Harry Shearer (Flanders/Mr. Burns/Principal Skinner/Kent Brockman/others), and Hank Azaria (Chief Wiggum/Apu/Moe/Comic Book Guy/Disco Stu/Supernintendo Chalmers/others)- take a pay cut from their current $9 million per year (or $440,000 per episode) to $5 million per year (or $250,000 per episode) or else the show will end due to the fact that the show has become too expensive to produce under their current demands. The cast has famously renegotiated many times for more money, but this is the first time they've been asked to take less. The cast gave a counter-offer of $300,000 an episode in exchange for a share of the lucrative syndication and merchandising rights for the show, but not surprisingly, TCF refused. The cast has until Friday to decide.

Some interesting things come up here...the most interesting is the fact that the cast does not already get a share of the back-end money. Given how important they are to bringing the characters of the show to life, you'd think they'd already get some of that, but in a way it's not surprising, since voice actors in particular aren't really treated that well. Some famous VAs such as Tom Kenny and Billy West have lamented the fact that major motion pictures turn them down and seek top-named talent for animated movies, and TCF has threatened multiple times to replace the Simpsons voice cast during negotiations (and also threatened to do the same to Futurama).

The other interesting question is- should the show die? If not now, when? And what would the result be? It seems impossible to live in a world without The Simpsons, but all good things must come to an end. As for what would happen afterwards, it's quite possible that the show is worth more alive than dead. Under the current syndication contract, which was signed in the mid-1990s, reruns of The Simpsons can only be sold to local stations. If the show ends, this opens up the possibility of selling reruns of the show to a cable network such as FX, Adult Swim, or Comedy Central (or the all-Simpsons network TCF has thought about) as well as online streaming services such as Hulu or Netflix. Based on one estimate, it's possible that TCF could make upwards of $750 million on such deals (estimating $2 million per episode with 506 episodes at the end of this season).

The cast has commissioned a study stating that the show is not losing money as TCF claims, but even if it were to go on, it probably wouldn't for long. Apparently, TCF is somewhat correct in the matter, according to an anonymous source, and if the show went on, it probably would only go on for one more season and that everyone who works on the show, not just the voice cast, are taking pay cuts because of this.

Is it time for The Simpsons to die? In my opinion: yes, but on its own terms, not because of a money dispute. The Simpsons is definitely one of the most influential- and funniest- television shows in history, but it's not what it used to be. I wouldn't be sad to see it go, but it should be allowed to go on its own terms and given the proper send-off it deserves. Much like I Love Lucy, All in the Family, and Seinfeld, The Simpsons was a revolutionary comedy whose classic episodes still hold up today and will probably live on forever in reruns. Its time has come, but Homer and friends deserve to say goodbye on their own terms, not those of the folks who provide their voices.

THE SIMPSONS ™&©2011 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp. No ownership intended or implied.