Spatialand and VR are Coming to Wal-Mart

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Earlier this week, news broke that Walmart bought Spatialand, a virtual reality design company, to add to its portfolio company Store No 8. Store No 8 describes itself as "an innovation hub" that tests new ideas to improve the retail industry. While not even a year old, Store No 8 has moved fast to snap up technology initiatives. For example, it's working on developing cashier-less stores and the ability to order products via text. Now that Spatialand has been added, it's clear that Wal-Mart wants to experiment with using VR to heighten the shopping experience. But how would that help? 

One excellent possibility comes from Spatialand's founder herself, Kimberly Cooper. Cooper's done work on titles like Iron Man, Rogue One, Metal Gear Solid, and Destiny, so she's got some impressive work under her belt. She points out that VR could bolster product design, boosting "creative freedom" and hailing the kind of benefits that immersive tech could bring to sectors beyond retail. 

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On the other side of retail, supply chains may also benefit from the enhanced technology. Bill Bishop, a member of retail consulting firm Brick Meets Click, says that VR could make inventory tracking a lot easier. After all, if you only have "to move them around with a mouse and not have the store labor do it", it could help reduce human error and make things much easier to track and handle. 

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Of course these are only two examples, but the team seems very excited to start finding even more. Katie Finnegan, the principal of Store No 8 and now interim CEO of Spatialand, stated that "The team will develop and explore new products and uses of VR through immersive retail environments that can be incorporated by all facets of Walmart, online and offline."

It's too early to tell how far virtual reality may end up changing the experience at Wal-Mart. It may offer added convenience to both the consumer and supplier; it may end up revolutionizing the system as much as the barcode. There's some real talent behind Wal-Mart's intitiative though, and it'll be exciting to see what ends up coming of it.

Did the Oscars Rule Change Affect the Animated Nominees?

Awards season is in full swing already. The Golden Globes have already passed, and the Academy will be handing out those little statues in early March. There's already been some buzz about the Oscars this year, but as usual it's covered in controversy. Concern has arisen over recent rule changes surrounding the nomination of animated films. In the past, the Academy had a specific branch dedicated to selecting animated films for nomination, and then the entire Academy's membership voted on the winner. Now however, the entire Academy will be eligible to nominate the Best Animated Feature film, in the same way that the Best Picture is nominated. 

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There had been concerns that this would exclude indie animated features from consideration. The idea of having a specific branch nominate in each category is that it allows experts to select the best work for consideration. That is, it allows people who understand the technical aspects behind the animation processes to choose what should be presented for judgement. Opening nominations up to the entire Academy is risky, especially given allegations that voters merely select winners based on what their kids liked. Now that the actual nominees have been selected though, those features have been allayed... mostly. 

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The big frontrunner of course is Pixar's Coco, which is a given. We also saw some smaller productions make it too, which is a good sign! We've got Loving Vincent, and The Breadwinner. The inclusion of these smaller titles has bolstered many hopes in the Academy's fairness and scope. However, eyebrows have already been raised at the other two nominations: The Boss Baby and Ferdinand. The Internet has exploded especially over the former, which came as a surprise given the critical and audience feedback. 

Ultimately though, it seems to be par for the course. We've got the Disney/Pixar nomination, we have our indie titles, and we have some popular films up for the running. The shift in rules seems to have had little effect, at least this year. And perhaps, now that everyone has the responsibility to nominate animated films, more members of the Academy will give them a fair shake? 

Well, in any case we have the Annie Awards on February 3. 

January's News in Animation!

It's only the 1st month in 2018 and there's already so much going on in the animation industry! Here is a few things that have come and yet to come in the month of January! Stay tuned for a round-up for every month this year!

 

1. Animation at the Golden Globes!

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So many great animated features were nominated for "Best Animated Feature Film" at the Golden Globes.

  • Boss Baby, which was released on March 31, 2017 by 20th Century Fox and produced by DreamWorks Animation.
  • Breadwinner, which was released on November 17, 2017 by GKIDS, Elevation Pictures and Studio Canal. It was also produced by numerous production companies, including: Cartoon Saloon, Aircraft Pictures, Guru Studios, Jolie Pas, Irish Film Board, Melusine Productions and Telefilm Canada.
  • Ferdinand, which was released on December 10, 2017 by 20th Century Fox and produced by Blue Sky Studios, 20th Century Fox Animation and Davis Entertainment. 
  • Loving Vincent, which was released on October 13, 2017 in the United States by Altitude Film Distribution and Next Film. It was produced by BreakThru Productions and Trademark Films. 

And the one that took home the Golden Globe, Coco, which was released on November 22, 2017 by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures and produced by Walt Disney Pictures and Pixar Animation Studios!

 

2. Animated Features in January!

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Paddington 2 was released on January 12, 2018 by Studio Canal and produced by Heyday Films, Studio Canal, Canal+ and Ciné+! The journey of a whimsical teddy bear who goes through a series of jobs to save up money for a pop-up book he falls in love with. When the book is stolen, he embarks on a different search, Paddington sets forth to unmask the thief!

Check out the trailer here!

 
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3. Animated Series in January!

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On Netflix there's a few TV Animated Kids' Shows, including: Trolls: The Beat Goes On!Llama Llama, and The Adventures of Puss in Boots Season 6. 

As you know, Animated Series are not just for children, Netflix also has a few other animated series released, including: Devilman Crybaby, which started January 5, 2018, an adaptation of the comic Devilman by Go Nagai. There is also a long list of other Anime being released on Crunchyroll that you can find here!

 

4. New Animation Competition

Launched by Studio Art&Graft, "7 Second Sins" is a competition where all animations must be 7 seconds long and must reinterpret the assigned sin for the month.  The first deadline being January 27, 2018 and on "Pride" with purple as the color palette. 

If you're interested in joining in on the competition, check out the rules and deadlines here!

 

5. Animation Programs for Students

There is also a lot going on for animation students all over the world. New programs, improved programs, and tuition free animation programs!

The Sunrise Animation Studio in Japan has a free animation training program that you can find out more about here! Paris, France also provides a similar opportunity with TeamTO at the animation school La Poudrière in Bourg-lès-Valence, which is right next to their studio!

Plus a whole long list of more of these new and improved programs here!

 

Stay up to date on more news in animation on all our social media platforms!

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Mario Inches Closer to a Big Screen Return

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Last November, Nintendo fans around the world got some big news. The Wall Street Journal reported that Nintendo was close to an agreement to bring the Super Mario Bros back to the big screen. Primary among the candidates was Illumination, the Universal-owned animation studio. A few days ago, the story was stoked again by Nintendo's president, Tatsumi Kimishima. As reported on GameInformer.com, Kimishima hopes to reach an agreement soon, and foresees a film released in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

If the deal goes through, it would be incredible news. Nintendo has been protective of their characters since the infamous 1993 live-action Super Mario Bros. Critics and audiences alike detested it, and the movie grossed only half its budget. It is now held up as a cautionary example about how films based on video games are doomed to fail. That trend has not changed much after twenty-five years. Movies like Prince of Persia and the more recent Assassin's Creed falling into obscurity. However, The Angry Birds Movie from 2016 managed to bring in almost $350 million from a $73 million budget. Some profit is still to be had...sometimes.

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A Super Mario Bros. movie has a better chance of succeeding, though, than many other titles. While some games like Prince of Persia may not be widely-known, Mario's reputation embedded deep in popular culture. Mario also has the advantage of relevance. Angry Birds might have been more successful, but struggled with connecting audiences to a fad game that had peaked four years prior. Meanwhile, Nintendo released Mario Odyssey this past year, and the hype has been strong. Mario Odyssey has been a massive commercial success, and earned several awards. Not to mention that the Mario franchise is more kid-friendly. It's easier to sell tickets to a general family audience than to a niche adult market.

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If Nintendo partners with Illumination, the chances of box office success grow stronger. Illumination has proven they can do one thing really well: make high-grossing blockbusters. Their Despicable Me 3 is set to be the highest-grossing animated movie of 2017, and the fourth-highest grossing film of the year. They're also no strangers to adapting others' works. Illumination released The Lorax in 2012, and is currently finishing up a new version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas!. Not to mention the ties that Nintendo already has with parent company Universal. For two years already, Universal has held a license to build theme park attractions based off of the Mario franchise. A film license would only solidify that connection.

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Of course, besides talk of profits and synergy, there's also the artistic question. Would Illumination make a good Super Mario Bros. movie? The Wall Street Journal did point out in November that this has been a sticking issue in negotiations. People close to the talks have said that Nintendo wants to "feel confident it will be involved enough in the creative process." Luckily, Shigeru Miyamoto has been part of the negotiations. He is the original creator of the game and a current "creative fellow" at Nintendo, and there are high hopes he'll land a producer role. If that ends up coming to pass, it'll be something that Super Mario Bros. 1993 didn't have...

If the deal goes through, and the final product ends up doing well, Universal may hit a goldmine. Their plan for a monster-based cinematic Dark Universe hit a snag in 2017... but if they land Nintendo movies, that would be a powerful way to compete with the likes of Disney and Warner Bros. The current media business revolves around licensing and consolidation after all. Disney has made some power moves with Lucasfilm and the recent 20th Century Fox purchase. Universal could definitely parry well with a Nintendo deal... but "could" is the keyword here. Strategy is important in show business, but making good film is necessary for execution. There's a lot of excitement, and it's now a waiting game to see what plays out.

Animated Features in 2018!

Happy New Year! 2017 was a good year for animation, but there's a lot to look forward to in 2018 as well! Some that are sequels from long ago and others that leave us in full wonderment. Listed below are only a few of animations you can keep an eye out for in the next year!

1. Arctic Justice: Thunder Squad 

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Release date: April 27, 2018

Dreaming of becoming the Top Dog of a delivery service in the arctic, Swifty must prove himself. During his mission on doing so he encounters almost every arctic animal you can think of, and they join together to stop the evil walrus to save the day!

Directed by Aaron Woodley and produced by AMBI Group and AIC Studios the Arctic Justice: Thunder Squad trailer can be seen here!

 

2. Sherlock Gnomes

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Release date: March 23, 2018

Directed by John Stevenson, Sherlock Gnomes is about one Gnomeo and Juliet who move into a garden with all their gnomes to live happily ever after! When they find they have all disappeared, they hire the only one they knew would solve the mystery, "The greatest ornamental detective"!

Check out the trailer that brought to us by Paramount Pictures here!

 

 

3. Incredibles 2

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Release date: June 15, 2018

Normal is a hard type of life to lead when there is so much crime to fight, and this family is back at it! Mr. Incredible stays home to watch the kids, as Elastigirl and Frozone find ways to tackle the new villian, The Underminer!

Directed by Brad Bird and brought to us by Disney Pixar, the Incredibles 2 trailer can be seen here!

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4. Smallfoot

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Release date: September 28, 2018

Yeti's really do exist in this animated feature directed by Karey Kirkpatrick, and they are on the hunt for the mythical creatures know as "Smallfoot", otherwise known as humans! The fame that Migo's stories of this creatures makes him even more determined to prove his tale to the Yeti community. 

"Yeti or not..." Warner Bros. Studios has the trailer ready to watch here!

 

5. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

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Release date: December 14, 2018

Peter Parker's passing leaves a teenager with the struggle of balancing high school with his duties as a superhero. Directed by Peter Ramsey, Bob Persichetti and Rodney Rothman and produced by Columbia Pictures, Sony Pictures Animation, Marvel Entertainment, Arad Productions, Pascal Pictures, this large team shows us what the Spider-Verse is all about in this comic-book style animation.

Watch the teaser trailer here!

 

Be sure to keep an eye out for all the other animated features being released this year, we have a lot more to look forward to! Check out a few more here!

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Animation at War: A Brief Look at Animated Propaganda

"Propaganda" leaves a bad taste in the modern audience's mouth, and it's a slur often hurled about at whatever media we find distasteful. It's hard to imagine a time when propaganda was openly discussed, advocated for, and produced under that very name. Sure enough though, it played a major part in world history, even in our own country's history — and even in the animation industry. That's right, some of the most famous propaganda films are animations. Let's take a look at some of them.

One of the greatest producers of propaganda was none other than Walt Disney himself. Just before the United States entered World War II, the studio was facing financial troubles. Pinocchio and Fantasia had resulted in financial losses, since the overseas markets were decimated by the war in Europe, and Dumbo was released as a low-budget money maker in October 1941. A couple months later, the attack on Pearl Harbor brought the war to the United States, and the government needed to suddenly build public morale for the fight. That's when they looked to Hollywood's studios to deliver that message, but most of all to Walt Disney. They needed his popular crowd-pleasing animations; he needed a reliable source of revenueProduction started almost right away.

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By August 1942, Fortune magazine published a column about Disney's efforts, saying that his films were "revolutionizing the technique of education." His films included The Spirit of '43, where Donald Duck argued in favor of paying income taxes; Der Fuehrer's Face, where Donald has a nightmare about the terrible life that Nazis would bring; Commando Duck, where Donald takes out a Japanese base... as one may tell, Donald Duck played a major role in the propaganda efforts. Other shorts included Education for Death, a surprisingly somber film that portrays the life of German youth, indoctrinated from birth to die violently on the battlefield. Victory through Air Power has a more strategic tone, demonstrating the way that strategic bombers had helped the Axis powers and could be used to help the Allies. There are many more films, but simply listing them all here would serve little use beyond what we've established. Disney covered a huge variety of topics, upping his production to tell people about the war, how it would impact them, and how they could impact it. 

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Of course, Disney wasn't the only animation studio producing propaganda. Warner Bros. also threw their hat into the ring. They may not have had the same volume or educational goals, but they still sought to foster public support for the war. They sent their own duck, Daffy, as a commando behind German lines in the appropriately named Daffy — The Commando in 1943. They also produced The Ducktators, where fowl caricatures of the Axis leaders take over a barnyard and push the pacifist dove to his breaking point. It's definitely a fascinating short, but it also shows the racial attitudes of the time...  stereotypes and caricatures abound! It's worth looking at to see the culture of the time, but potential viewers should be warned!

Propaganda was not just confined to the United States. The Soviet Union produced its own animations to rally their people. The 1941 short "Fascist Boots Shall Not Trample Our Motherland" is incredibly brief, not even reaching three minutes, but delivers its message easily. The visuals aren't necessarily the best though, and a trained eye can find several strange cuts and errors. More remarkable though, is the 1963 short American Imperialist: The Millionaire. It details a scenario where a rich American woman dies, leaving her money to her pet dog, who then becomes a part of the wealthy ruling class. The animation has definitely improved, it has a pleasing subdued palette, and it actually has some fun visual gags. On a technical level, it meets the standards for its time.

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Even today, animation continues to be used in propaganda films. I'm not talking about comic jabs at this or that political figure, I mean as sincere take-this-seriously propaganda. All the way in the hermit kingdom of North Korea, they have a show titled Squirrel and Hedgehog. Given the reclusive nature of any North Korean information, we know little about the show's production. From the episodes we have though, it's relatively easy to see what their goal is. It's a very thinly veiled metaphor. The initial episodes began during the Cold War, where a happy village of squirrels and hedgehogs are protected by a bear from the nefarious weasels. The bear is often drunk and unreliable though, so the village takes it upon themselves to defend against the weasels. If you start thinking "Hey, it's like North Korea is saying they didn't need the Soviet Union to protect them from their enemies," you'd be right.

Production was choppy, so later episodes didn't come out for years. When they did though, the animation drastically improved - the show actually looks really good on a technical level. They began adding villainous wolves dressed up in American army uniforms, again an easy metaphor to connect. Most of all though, they started to string together a story that, separated from the propaganda side of things, many people find genuinely compelling even outside of North Korea. The popularity inside the country seems no less. From what little coverage inside the country we have, Squirrel and Hedgehog stickers line nursery walls, and children's ensembles sing musical numbers inspired by the show. However, it's a cause for concern. Beyond everything else mentioned already, the show has a reputation for violence. Protagonists torture enemies for information, bloody executions take place, and they sing about giving up their lives for their home. It's fascinating from an artistic point of view, but also incredibly dangerous.

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Luckily, propaganda has fallen out of favor throughout most of the world. Some may argue it's present when a film presents one viewpoint or another, but the idea of government-sanctioned mass media is no longer popular. But it's always fascinating to look back, see a time capsule from the past, that might feel like another culture entirely even if it's from your own country.

Alita: Battle Angel and the Uncanny Valley

Last weekend, a trailer dropped for a movie called Alita: Battle AngelDirected by Robert Rodriguez, and written and produced by James Cameron,  the movie uses the manga Battle Angel Alita as source material. It focuses on a young cyborg who must, according to iMDB, "discover the truth of who she is and her fight to change the world." The trailer generated a bit of buzz... but not necessarily for an enviable reason. While some viewers did say that they were impressed, many were struck by one feature in particular: Alita's eyes.

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Alita's character is brought to life using computer-generated imagery, and the most striking features about her aren't her cybernetic limbs, but the enlarged eyes. Comments have ranged from humorous to outright critical, and several bring up a very important principle of animation: the uncanny valley.

What exactly is the uncanny valley? It's a trick that lies at the intersection of art and human psychology. The best example involves robots: imagine an industrial robot, the mechanical arm that builds cars. It does not appear very human, and so you may not be as attached. But let's add more human features, maybe something like WALL-E or Short Circuit's Johnny Five. You begin to build more of an emotional connection with it. Now make the robot even more humanoid, something like C-3PO from Star Wars. Now he's a real character, a person in his own right, that you would be even more invested in. In general, the more human-ish an object appears, the more we will connect with it.

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But there is a drastic exception to this rule. As an object draws near full human likeness, it enters into the "uncanny valley." It's a point where the object appears almost completely human, but not quite fully there. The connection suddenly becomes revulsion, and people may be repelled away from the object. There are competing explanations for the phenomenon. Some say it's an unconscious physical repulsion from a "human" that appears to be ill or sickly. Others argue it's a perceived threat to human identity. Whatever the cause though, the uncanny valley has implications not just for robotic designers, but even more so for digital artists.

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Computer imagery has developed by leaps and bounds, and we are now nearing the capability to replicate humans on screen. Such an act always has the inherent danger of falling into the uncanny valley though, and undermining the whole effect. Audiences do respond to that, but it isn't always a liability. Sometimes the uncanny valley can be exploited if you WANT to make a character disturbing and unsettling. Case in point, King Ramses from Courage the Cowardly DogAnyone around the age of 20 can testify that he was one of the most truly terrifying villains in cartoons. 

Of course, most of the time the uncanny valley is accidental, and it's plagued digital artists for decades. One excellent example is Tin Toy, a 1988 Pixar short that features a baby that... well, doesn't look or move like any baby I know of! The 2004 movie The Polar Express also faced troubles with its human characters. It was the first film shot entirely on a motion-capture stage, so of course there were some rough edges.  Mars Needs Moms faced similar troubles, and more recently Rogue One caught some flak for their CGI representation of General Tarkin. 

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Which leads us back to Alita. The attempt seems to be to recreate the well-known Japanese style of large eyes. Robert Rodriguez confirmed this in an interview with Empire, where he said they wanted "to create a photo-realistic version of the manga eyes that we're so accustomed to seeing." He added that "When it gets to the emotional scenes it's really uncanny and striking." So far fans seem to be split: some are saying that the uncanny valley might fit the story of an android struggling to fit into a human society. Others say that she should look like the other humans, given the manga's style. A lot comes down to the writing of the movie and how it's handled, and we won't see that until July. One thing for sure though, is that everyone's going to be paying attention to those big ol' eyes.

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Looking Back at Adventure Time

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A couple weeks ago, a party was held in Hollywood. It was a wrap party, celebrating the end of production on one of the most important animated series of our time: Adventure Time. The award-winning series is now on its tenth and final season, and in honor of its conclusion it seems fitting to go back and explore the impact the show has had on television animation.

To fully understand the impact of Adventure Time, we need to understand the world of the late naughts, prior to 2010. To put it lightly... those were not kind years for television animation. The three major players - Nickelodeon, the Disney Channel, and Cartoon Network - had only limited offerings. Live-action youth sitcoms were beginning to dominate. Cartoon Network in particular attempted to roll out a programming block in 2009 titled "CN Real", dedicated only to live-action reality programming. Nickelodeon was trying to find something that would stick as well as Spongebob could, but programs like Fanboy and Chum Chum failed to garner strong views. Disney Channel meanwhile had been given over to programs like Jonas and Suite Life; Phineas and Ferb was one of the few noteworthy animated programs near the end of the decade.

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Enter into the scene Pendleton Ward, a graduate from the California Institute for the Arts. In 2006 he made a short titled Adventure Time. By November 2007 it garnered over a million views, having spread around the Internet. Ward took his idea to Nickelodeon and pitched it as a show, but found himself rejected. He then took it to Cartoon Network, where his pitch was accepted. The first episode aired April 5, 2010, to an audience of 2.5 million viewers. From there, the show has continued to receive popularity and praise. Adventure Time has received major nominations every year it has aired, and won several Emmy Awards and Annie Awards. 

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So what is it about Adventure Time that makes it so special? One part of its appeal lies in the wacky off-the-wall world. The main stars are a human named Finn, voiced by Jeremy Shada, and his loyal shape-shifting dog Jake, voiced by John DiMaggio. They encounter characters like an Ice King, a vampire, a lumpy space princess (a blob whose name is literally Lumpy Space Princess), a bubblegum princess, a lemon, a living video game console... and the list goes on from there. It's an environment full of "fun and excitement" and "pure imagination."

At the same time, Adventure Time manages to handle more complex and deeper themes. Characters are not just paper cutouts, but deeper people who we get to explore and discover more about. Critics have praised it for talking about things like mental illness and loss. There has even been an academic interest in the show: for example, Emma Jane published an article in the Journal of Children and Media in which she described the ways that Adventure Time handled gender roles. The balance of wackiness with headiness has helped keep the show entertaining and intriguing for its audience.

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It's a balance, in fact, that has redefined the industry. Adventure Time is often credited with sparking a new television animation renaissance. In fact, alumni from Adventure Time have gone on to make excellent shows of their own. Patrick McHale, a director on the series, went on to create Over the Garden Wall. Rebecca Sugar, a writer and storyboard artist, became the showrunner on the hit series Steven Universe. Ian Jones-Quartey (OK K.O.! Let's Be Heroes), Skyler Page (Clarence), Julia Pott (Summer Camp Island), the list goes on. Besides alumni though, other channels saw the success of Adventure Time, realized that cartoons were still a viable crowd-pleaser, and took a risk on series like Gravity Falls and The Loud House. Everyone wanted to recapture the magic of Adventure Time, and it has led to some truly great works.

With the show's production officially stopped, and the last season airing, it's safe to say that all cast and crew should feel proud for taking part in something so important. Adventure Time has not only inspired fans, but breathed new life into an entire industry. Its impact will not be forgotten, and whatever the crew move on to next will surely be spectacular.

November Animation News Round-Up!

As we near the end of the year, we had a very eventful month in the world of animation! From expositions, to animation feature releases, to more about what is coming up. What better way to spend the day after Thanksgiving than to catch up on what went on in the world of animation during the month of November! 

 

1. D-CON

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Design plays a big role in the animation process and Designer Con includes many great designers in the toy and art industry. It takes place in Pasadena, CA every November and has over 400 vendors, art & custom shows, and live demonstrations all about toys and art, with many that are based off animations! Since it keeps growing every year, next year it will be moving to the Anaheim Convention Center, so keep an eye out!

Check out the vendors who were there this year here

 

2. Google Spotlight Stories

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Google Spotlight Stories launched as a new VR experience on Steam, Vive Port, Google Daydream, and Google Spotlight Stories mobile app. Son of Jaguar and Sonaria were both recently debuted on Google Spotlight Stories and available for us to be immersed into their art as you watch through the goggles. 

Check iour the trailer for Sonariaon YouTube!

 

3. CTNx

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CTNx is always a great experience and this year was a little more special for us! It was the first year we had a table at CTNx, and we are so glad to have had the opportunity. On top of still being able to see what is going on in the industry and attending all the knowledge filled panels, we met a lot of talented artists who we hope to have the chance to work with on upcoming projects!

Get a little glimpse of CTNx 2017 here!

 

4. Coco

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If you read our last blog, we wrote quite a bit about Coco being the highest grossing movie of all time in Mexico. With just a few days in theaters in the US, it already made 48.4 million and has 96% on Rotten Tomatoes! It's cultural education is the cherry on top of the visual impact it has. Critics say "Pixar's Day-of-the-Dead gem pays loving tribute to Mexican culture with animation that brims over with visual pleasures, comic energy and emotional wallop."

If you haven't seen it yet, check out the trailer here!

 

5. Creators Society 

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Very glad we were able to meet even more creatives at this years CTNx and looking forward to learning more about everyone at this month's mixer! We will be enjoying great company, good food, and a beautiful view at the Crystal View Lounge at the Holiday Inn in Burbank. We hope you can make it out too, RSVP here!

What Coco's Success Says About Taking the Time to Diversify

This past Wednesday, the news hit: Pixar Animation’s Coco unseated The Avengers to be the highest grossing movie of all time in Mexico. For those not in the know, Coco tells the story of a young boy named Miguel who wishes to pursue his dream of becoming a musician, but due to an old family ban he’s forbidden from doing so. But in the middle of Día de Muertos (“Day of the Dead”), he finds himself suddenly transported to the Land of the Dead. He now has to find his way back home… but not before discovering more about his family and where he came from.

Coco screened widely within Mexico prior to its domestic release. It’s an unusual tactic, as anyone within the industry can tell you that movies produced within the US almost always screen domestically before heading to foreign markets. Releasing the movie in Mexico first, though, caps off a production that has at every step emphasized a complete and accurate portrayal of Mexican culture, especially Día de Muertos, and shows off the utility of reaching across cultures in business.

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It’d be easy to make a story about Día de Muertos: you thrown in some skeletons, colorful skulls, generic festivities. All you have to do is pick whatever main plot you want and there you go. It takes effort, though, to make a story that understands Día de Muertos, especially if you come from outside that culture and ethnicity. It takes effort, no matter how small, to know that the colorful skulls, the calaveras de azucar, are not meant to be viewed as macabre but rather as joyful. It takes effort to really understand the themes of the holiday: it’s not about mourning the dead, but celebrating the life that people lived and keeping them in memory.

Adrian Molina, co-director, attends  Coco 's premiere in Mexico City. Courtesy of Disney•Pixar

Adrian Molina, co-director, attends Coco's premiere in Mexico City. Courtesy of Disney•Pixar

Disney and Pixar put in that effort. Co-director Adrian Molina remarked that “We knew from the early stages that in creating this film, accompanying it was this huge responsibility to represent it faithfully — to get the culture right — and to be very thoughtful in being stewards of what the celebration is.” Now much has been said in the past about the extent that Pixar’s research teams will go to in order to find the tiniest little details to be that much more accurate in their depiction of real world places, things, or even concepts. And just as Molina said, they took an extra step of not just understanding the holiday, but even going so far as to explore how it’s celebrated differently in different regions of Mexico. In the words of Gael Garcia Bernal, it’s “a very heterogeneous, generous festival.” This doesn’t even start getting into casting, where nearly everyone cast is Latino and thus giving an extra edge of authenticity to the whole production.

Of course this is all fine and well from a social justice perspective, but does it make any business sense? To answer that, I’d point you back to the beginning of this post: the top grossing movie of all time in Mexico. As of this Thursday Coco's brought in $43.1 million, 827 million pesos, and that number’s only climbing. Critics and audiences are singing its praises as one of Pixar’s better works.

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And so I circle back to what I said before: it would have been easy to make a story about Día  de Muertos. However, Pixar took the time to truly understand the holiday, to explore the themes that it celebrates, and then build the story around those themes. In doing so they’ve made a GREAT story about Día de Muertos. It's something special and, so far, successful. It goes to show that taking that extra step to understand something more fully can make a world of difference.

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