Drawn to Life: 20 Golden Years of Disney Master Classes Volume 1 / Walt Stanchfield : 5 of 5

Drawn to Life: 20 Golden Years of Disney Master Classes: Volume 1: The Walt Stanchfield LecturesAlthough I'm only a fan of animation and not an animator, I love reading about the techniques involved in creating the art itself. Disney animation has always set itself apart by continually providing its artists with learning opportunities to help them improve, one of these being a long series of evening "gesture drawing" classes by Walt Stanchfield (who worked on many of Disney's feature animation classes). For each of these classes, Walt would provide a handout to discuss everything from line and perspective to "life pep-talks", and this huge wealth of written information has been collected into this giant book, which is the first of a two volume series edited by Don Hahn (my favorite Disney producer). Walt was in his late 60s when he wrote these handouts, but his life was filled with energy and an incredible positive outlook, fueled by his love of art itself.Most of this book is about the activity of drawing, but the subject matter is so broad that many chapters read like incredibly inspiring philosophy lectures, encouraging students to adopt an attitude of enthusiasm (since "man is a human dynamo") and to embrace the artistic world in all forms. His writing is so convincing that I found myself taking notes and wanting to fill my life with more art experiences! Quite often Walt illustrates his point by showing students' drawings, and every now and then he mentions the artist, which is a cool peek into the early careers of people like Pete Docter (director of Monsters, Inc. and Up), for example. I loved imagining the actual class setting, since Walt's writing talks about difficult tasks such as using the pose of a live model but drawing a Disney character such as Ariel from the Little Mermaid in the same pose. The foundation of his teaching is to draw verbs, not nouns (to be able to capture story and action in every static sketch), and it's obvious how he believed in this method by spending every spare moment sketching. This first volume is a giant book (almost too large to read comfortably), but I was always raring to read another chapter to see what Walt would say next. I can't express how much Walt's life lessons impressed me (as a non-artist), and I can't wait to take on Volume 2, which should be under the Christmas tree in a few months!


Legend of the Guardians / The Owls of Ga'Hoole : 3 of 5

Warner Bros. is doing a nice job getting me to see movies that I would never have considered going to by including new Road Runner cartoons with the main feature! The cartoon was too short, but a little funnier than the one included with Cats & Dogs, and I liked the crazy flying gadget that the Coyote made from ACME products! I had no idea what to expect after the "That's All Folks!", but Legend of the Guardians turned out to be a surprisingly good movie, especially because it's the first animated feature directed by Zack Snyder. Zack's style is evident all over the place, and since the plot includes a lot of battles, he gets a chance to stage them with his "sudden slow-motion" technique that he used in 300 and Watchmen. When I first saw a trailer for this film, I couldn't imagine how they were going to convey emotion using the relatively static facial features of owls, but to my amazement they completely pulled it off. You wouldn't think those tiny beaks and huge eyes could do much, but somehow the character's faces easily register everything from happiness to fear, while still maintaining the basically photo-realistic look that requires a pretty strict adherence to owl anatomy! Without going into the plot (which borrows a few elements from Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, among other movies), I really enjoyed the creative owl culture, which includes armor and weapons used in the many extended (and truly exciting) battle scenes. At one point the heroes are fighting bats, and even the bats have blades attached to their wings! The overall tone of the story is fairly serious (without many comedic moments), except for the inclusion of a pop-song montage that is completely out of place and totally made me cringe (I really hope that Zack was forced into it by some clueless executive!). Of course, the stage is set for a possible sequel (and I believe the story is based on a series of books anyway), but we'll have to see if such an unusual fantasy film makes enough at the box office to pay for another film. I'd definitely enjoying renting Legend of the Guardians when it's released on DVD just to check out the cool animation again!


Ballet Austin / Carmina Burana : 4 of 5

Although I used to go to the ballet often, for some reason I hadn't seen one in a quite a long time, but after reading about the huge orchestra and choir involved in Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, I made a last minute decision to attend Ballet Austin's season opener! The program began with a short ballet called Kai featuring the music of John Cage, known for his modern prepared piano works. The music was strange but extremely rhythmic, which was mirrored in the intricate dance that featured modern moves like slides, backward leaps, and interesting duplications (where a motion would be "echoed" across several dancers). After the intermission, Carmina Burana began with the well-known O Fortuna, which sounded phenomenal as performed by the Conspirare choir and full Austin Symphony! I wasn't expecting any kind of sets or costumes for this ballet, but the stage included some interesting elements with an iron bar motif that well-represented the suppression/release of the monks' fantasy life, since Carmina Burana is based on a series of secret poems written by medieval monks dreaming about forbidden pleasures. The start of the ballet was definitely an introduction to this concept, as male dancers wearing thin "frocks" (with hoods and kind of skirts to represent robes) removed them and threw them to the ground, causing some interesting audience response! The rest of the hour-long piece was filled with many playful, Spring-like dances, as well as some beautifully sung solos (some without dance), which interjected quite a bit of light-hearted flirting and comedy that was a complete reversal of the opening. Of course, the ballet ended with a kind of "return to reality" as the monks resumed their stoic life. I was really impressed and amazed at the dancers and their complex movements, and grateful to experience new music accompanied by such wonderful visuals. I definitely plan on seeing more of Ballet Austin this season!


Nine years with The Greatest American Heroes

Last night The Greatest American Heroes played our 9th anniversary show at the Carousel Lounge! It was a really fun gig with some power-packed sets, plus a special "unplugged" set with 12-string guitar, fretless bass and bongos (and I have the bruises on my hands to prove it!), and the crowd seemed to really have a great time watching us do our thing. I'm sure none of us ever imagined we would be playing TV theme songs for the past nine years, so it was kind of a nostalgic night that made me think about the history of the band and some of the changes we've been through.

Music: When we first got together, we were actually a surf band, mainly because surf is pretty easy and fun to play! We still include some classic tunes like Walk Don't Run in our shows, just for fun. Along the way we learned a surf rendition of The Munsters theme song, and suddenly we thought, "What if we played a ton of TV theme songs?" The rest is history, as they say. Several of the band members also wrote their own theme songs for shows that don't exist, and we love to put together three-song medleys of tunes that make no sense together, such as A-Team/Eight is Enough/Green Acres, Speed Racer/Fat Albert/WKRP in Cincinnati, or even Spongebob Squarepants/Gilligan's Island/The Brady Bunch. I'm not even sure how many TV theme songs we know, but it's a lot!

Horns: Originally we had a horn section with Ernesto on saxophone and Jonathan on trumpet, and they created some fantastic arrangements together that really established a unique sound for the band. Later Ernesto moved to LA (and we miss him!), but Jonathan does a great job of holding it together with cool lines and creative solos!

Bass Players: Our founding bass player was Barron, but he needed more time with his family, so we found a guy named Doc who had a great style of playing, and he stayed with us quite a while. Eventually Francis took over, and he's been a fantastic edition since he can also play keyboard on a few numbers (essential for Cheers, for example) and does a great Kermit the Frog impression for Rainbow Connection!

Singers: We started out with our pal Conrad, who even came to see us last night and sang a few songs for old time's sake. Later Dana joined the band, adding a great female voice that made The Jeffersons a real crowd pleaser, but she eventually moved for a job in DC. Since the singer is so important to this band, we didn't know what to do, but soon we discovered that one of our biggest fans (always in the audience and always dancing) was a performer, and so Kirk became our singer, bringing a huge amount of energy and enthusiasm that definitely kept the band going!

Events: Being a TV theme show band is a little weird, because people either love it or could do without it. We've even been hired for parties and had someone ask us, "When are you going to play something besides TV theme songs?" The Carousel Lounge is one of the craziest dives in Austin, so we started playing there since we totally "fit", and we've been performing there the last Friday of the month for nine years! We've been lucky enough to play some cool gigs like South by Southwest Interactive, and even an amazing show in the Austin City Limits studio, and we've also done many charity gigs at various venues. We always have a blast at our Halloween show every year, since we dress in costume (along with the audience) and totally go nuts!

Above everything else, The Greatest American Heroes are a group of friends who love to play music. We certainly don't do it for the money (tips are scarce sometimes!), but it's the perfect excuse to get together, have some laughs, and enjoy the TV shows that we all watched growing up. We play loud and we play sloppy sometimes, but we always have fun, and when the crowd "gets it" and the TV nostalgia starts flowing, it's a fantastic feeling! Francis has recently re-created our website, so please check it out and enjoy the photos and videos. But most importantly, come check us out at the Carousel Lounge sometime!

Visit site: The Greatest American Heroes


Rent / Zach Scott Theater : 5 of 5

My parents and I have seen several Zach Scott Theater productions during their annual visits, so I was thrilled we were able to see the Broadway hit Rent there during opening weekend! I saw a touring company production many years ago, but my parents had never seen the show (although they were familiar with the songs and subject matter), so this was a first experience for them which they absolutely loved. The best aspect of this production is the immersive and intimate environment of Zach's Kleberg Stage, which has been transformed into a New York City setting (right down to the street noises before the show begins). The set includes multiple levels that even extend to the sides above the audience, which are often populated by performers (who also move through the aisles), literally surrounding the viewer in the action and sound. Most of the main set is filled by a large video display (kind of a pyramid of old TV tubes) with images that change to reflect the mood or even individual lyrics of a song, which is really cool and timed perfectly. The performers were all amazing, expressing their characters with powerful voices (which are even more incredible standing only a few feet in front of you!) and wonderful energy. The live band (which unfortunately is completely hidden, but there's nowhere else to put them!) did a flawless job, although the intensity of the music sometimes made it easy to miss a few lyrics (which are important since so many backstory details are included in the songs). My favorite number was the Tango Maureen, which was hilarious and danced so well, and my parents really enjoyed La Vie Boheme, mainly because the cafe scene was so full of life that Mom & Dad felt like they were right there at the table with the characters. Needless to say, I was thoroughly impressed with the entire production, and honestly it was so much better than the touring version I had seen before! Although Rent has almost become a pop culture cliche by now, this show still packs an emotionally uplifting punch with a wonderful message about life and love, and Zach Scott delivered that punch with full force!


The Town : 3 of 5

My parents and I really wanted to try out Gold Class Cinemas during their recent visit, but since Mom & Dad go to the movies all the time, this was the only film playing that they hadn't already seen! I probably wouldn't have seen this movie otherwise, but it turned out to be surprisingly good, mainly because the story is so interesting. The essential element of the plot is that a bank robber who takes a hostage during a crime later happens to meet her at the laundromat, and they eventually fall in love since she doesn't know his true identity (since the criminals wear creepy rubber masks). With that said, The Town definitely isn't a love story, since most of the movie is filled with gritty action scenes of semi-violent (but not too bloody) robberies and police chases, which are particularly exciting on those narrow and crowded Boston streets. I was pretty impressed that Ben Affleck wrote, directed, and starred in the movie, and I really couldn't find flaws in his work. There are many other supporting characters with good backstories as well, including the other members of the crime gang (one of whom is like a brother to Ben, but also the most bitter and violent) and the FBI agent who is on their trail. Part of the fun with anti-hero movies where you root for the "bad guys" is learning all the details of the crime, and it's amazing to see how something like the heist of Fenway Park after a crowded Major League game could take place. Of course, any movie would be enjoyable in the giant Gold Class Cinemas seats with a couple beers, but I'm glad my parents and I ended up seeing The Town and enjoying its well-crafted story.


Austin fun with Mom & Dad

Last weekend my parents came to Austin for their yearly visit, and we had a wonderful time filling the days with vacation fun. We did a little driving around and some shopping (I had to show them the new LEGO Store, and Mom needed to buy some shoes!) and spent the rest of the time eating and seeing entertainment. My parents always love The Oasis, so we enjoyed our meal there for as long as we could stand the heat, and they also like Carlos & Charlie's, so we had some great margaritas there while looking at the lake (which was nice since last year it was bone dry!). One night we went to Esther's Follies (which is always fresh and hilarious) and another night we saw Rent at the Zach Scott Theater, which was pretty spectacular! We also tried out the new ultra-swanky Gold Class Cinemas in the Domain, which was even cooler than I imagined (even though it's so expensive). The service in the lounge was great, the food was good, and reclining in those giant seats with blankets was luxurious! Of course Mom cooked a couple delicious breakfasts, and it was nice to relax at home, eating too many snacks and making Mom & Dad watch Japanese TV shows and Jpop videos. The four-day weekend really flew by (as usual), and I'm glad my parents and I had another nice Austin experience together!

View photos: Parents Visit 2010


Walt Disney Treasures: Zorro / Season Two : 5 of 5

Walt Disney Treasures: Zorro - The Complete Second SeasonAfter completely enjoying the first season of Disney's 1950s hit Zorro TV series, I had to immediately move on to this second season of high adventure in Spanish California! This is another huge six DVD set with nearly 40 episodes of the show as well as bonus material, so I had to do some marathon watching to finish it all. This season is a bit "softer" than the first, with a little more romance and comedy and plenty of guest stars (it seems every popular Latin actor was on the show), including Caesar Romero (the Joker himself) as Diego's scheming uncle and Ricardo Montalban as Diego's college rival from Spain. These episodes also feature Annette Funicello (Walt gave her the role as a birthday gift since she had a crush on Guy Williams!), and she's quite entertaining and cute (even if her accent is hilariously non-Spanish). The first several episodes take place in Monterrey rather than Los Angeles, and apparently Zorro didn't bring his black horse Tornado, so he uses a white one named Phantom (Tornado is back in action when they return to LA)! Zorro uses his whip quite a bit in this season (he even uses it to make his "Z", which is quite a feat!), and I was amazed at the number of scenes shot at Vasquez Rocks (a place I love to see for its Star Trek connection). The bonus material includes some additional hour-long episodes (which would have been part of the third season) and a nice short documentary on Guy Williams with lots of memories from his son. I really enjoyed watching Zorro and getting into the spirit of the show (I even learned some history about Spanish California), and I'm so glad I have this Walt Disney Treasures set in my collection!


Paris, Je T'aime : 4 of 5

Paris, Je T'Aime (Paris, I Love You)I became really interested in the Cities of Love series of movies after seeing New York, I Love You, so I immediately decided to rent the first film, Paris, Je T'aime. I really enjoy this type of movie, which combines lots of short stories (actually 18 of them, around 5-10 minutes each) featuring different directors, actors, moods and genres, all set in Paris. Each short is named for a particular place in the city, and while most of them are in French (obviously), there are a few in English since many famous directors (such as the Coen brothers) took part in the making of this film. There are also lots of well-known actors (Elijah Wood, Steve Buscemi, Natalie Portman, and more) that find a way to make their characters fascinating in such a short time frame! Many of the stories are romantic, some are comedic (like the tale of two mimes and how they meet), but several are sad, and there's even a campy (and bloody) vampire short to cover the horror genre. It's fun to notice different directorial techniques, such as the single continuous shot used in the scene with Nick Nolte, and of course the scenery is beautiful, enhanced by a nice soundtrack. I really appreciated the story about an older woman's solo vacation to Paris, with first-person narration about new experiences and falling in love with life itself. The film ends with a nice wrap up that somewhat connects several characters from the different shorts (though this is accomplished a little better in New York, I Love You), which left me with a wonderful feeling. It's impossible to get bored with a movie that completely changes every five minutes, so I think anyone would enjoy Paris, Je T'aime as an extremely accessible art film!


Austin Symphony / Andre Watts : 4 of 5

I always enjoy going to the first concert of the symphony season each year, but attending the opening of Austin Symphony's 100th season made it even more special! The featured soloist was the famous pianist Andre Watts, who showed off his years of experience with an impeccable rendition of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4. It was wonderful to see this piece performed, since I recently heard it discussed in a documentary, and I was amazed at how many of the melodies in all three movements that I could hum along with, although I don't have it in my CD collection (yet!). I loved the interesting chord progressions and incredible extended trills (talk about carpal tunnel!) of the first movement, as well as the moody call and response of the second movement. I think Austin audiences are a little spoiled by guest performer encores, since no one would stop applauding for Andre Watts, but I'm sure he was exhausted from such a trying piece! The rest of the program was interesting since there was a short piece by Schuman (notice the single N) as well as a symphony by Schumann (notice the 2 Ns)! The New England Triptych included some fascinating tympani work, although the rest of the piece wasn't really my style. Schumann's Symphony No. 2 was marvelous, however, with some fantastic woodwind sections in the slow movement, and plenty of huge bombastic flourishes to end the first and fourth movements. As always, I enjoyed being exposed to new classic works and re-discovering familiar ones. I'm looking forward to seeing much more of this triumphant 100th season!


LEGO ahoy

This week I had a nice LEGO experience, since I got to build a vintage 1989 Caribbean Clipper set from the LEGO Pirates line! My co-worker Amanda found the set during a big decluttering project, and since she knew about my LEGO addiction, she brought it to work and surprised me with it! I was totally amazed, since it was in excellent shape and even in the original box, but without the instruction book. Luckily, I was able to take advantage of the incredible LEGO resources available on the web, thanks to all the adult LEGO fans like me that have worked so hard to build sites like Brickset and Peeron! It was easy to type in the set number (6274) and instantly have access to scans of the original instructions, as well as a detailed inventory list of the set. I used my iPad to view the instruction scans, and I was shocked how much more confusing LEGO instructions were in the 80s! Of course, they were still pretty good, but certainly much less detailed than today (and with fewer steps, making each one a challenge). The inventory list was really handy, since there were a few stray parts that didn't belong in the box, as well as some missing pieces. Thankfully, nothing was missing to keep me from building a sturdy ship, and I was able to keep the "cosmetically challenged" sections somewhat hidden (and I can even buy the individual missing pieces from the web if I want). It was really fun to build the Caribbean Clipper and to enjoy the LEGO time machine, and it looks spectacular next to Brickbeard's Bounty on my shelf!

View photos: Caribbean Clipper


Durarara : 4 of 5

I actually heard about this anime while watching an AKB48 TV show when Mayu (who is somewhat of an otaku) mentioned it. I was curious about the series, and it didn't take me long to discover it was available to watch online via Crunchyroll, and I was able to enjoy the entire thing (some episodes on my iPad, and some on my MacBook). Durarara is a really cool anime, although it's a little strange how the plot keeps shifting direction and focus. The main characters are three students (two guys and a girl) living their lives in Ikebukuro, which is filled with gang activity and weird goings-on, such as the Headless Rider! The rider's motorcycle sounds like a horse, she wears black with a cool yellow helmet (just resting on her neck, since she's headless) that has sculpted cat ears, and can summon a scythe out of black mist. Actually, she's one of the main characters, just a kind girl who simply wants to find her head! Although at first this seems like the main plot of the show, the main storyline is about rival gangs, and slowly the strange secrets and pasts of each of the three students are revealed! There are lots of other colorful characters (a crazy-strong fighting guy who throws vending machines, a black guy who works at a Russian Sushi restaurant and speaks Japanese with a hilarious accent, plus geeky side characters who make lots of funny anime/manga references), and I loved how each episode is somewhat narrated by a different character so you get a glimpse into each of their thoughts! The animation and character designs are really cool, and the opening and closing themes are fantastic, too. Durarara is definitely an above average anime, and it was a lot of fun to watch an entire series before it's available on DVD in the US (but it will be soon). Thanks for the recommendation, Mayu!


Ultimate Fantastic Four Vol 2 / Doom : 3 of 5

Ultimate Fantastic Four Vol. 2: DoomI enjoyed the first volume of this series enough to put a few more on my PaperBack Swap list, and somehow I was lucky enough to get this second collection pretty quickly. These issues mostly focus on Doctor Doom (who was also a genius student at the Baxter Building in this re-imagined story) and how he actually caused the accident that created the Fantastic Four, and I liked the look into Doom's childhood and his obsession with pleasing his oppressive father. But the best scenes involve Sue's medical assessments of everyone's bodies, discovering things like Reed's lack of internal organs (explaining how he can stretch them) or Ben's ability to overcome his huge mass to fill his lungs with air (there's even a scene where he's asked about using the bathroom!). The relationships among the Fantastic Four seem really genuine and have lots of funny moments, especially when everyone teases Reed about the name of the Fantasticar (a clever way to add a modern take on something that wasn't so silly in the original comic). I thought it was cool how Doom was able to create an army of small insect robots out of tiny discarded parts (like cell phone cameras and MP3 players), but the actual battle with Doom was a little quick (but I'm sure this is just a warm-up for something much bigger). With excellent artwork and great characterization, I'm certainly glad I decided to take a look at this series, and if I can't get any other volumes from PaperBack Swap, I'm definitely tempted to buy a few!


Mood music

Although I have a humungous number of songs in my iTunes library, I also love listening to streaming music from a variety of sources, usually to fit a certain mood or activity. There's almost nothing as bad as hearing a song that doesn't fit how I'm feeling, so I've learned where to go to for the right mood music if I'm at home or at work. When I first wake up I usually want to do some reading, and I like listening to classical music while I read. I use the internet radio stations built into my Apple TV, which are conveniently categorized so I can narrow it down to opera, Baroque, or whatever fits the particular book (my tastes are really specific!). I also use my Apple TV to listen to jazz or ambient (Groove Salad is one of my favorite sources, although I wouldn't really call it ambient myself) when I'm enjoying manga or doing chores. At work, if my brain is kind of overwhelmed, I love listening to the predefined ambient station on Pandora (they also have great classical music stations, including a nice one of only piano works). If I'm kind of pissed off or cranky, I can get a great stream of shoegazer tunes out of Pandora (just using My Bloody Valentine as the seed group), and if I'm on a coding roll I discovered that my BoA station also plays tones of Ghost in the Shell soundtrack tunes, which somehow gives me intellectual energy! Finally, if I'm totally having a blah day, the ultimate weapon is Stereomood, which has an all-melancholy playlist (with a huge variety of songs that I don't know) that will definitely fit how I feel. I guess I've discovered that often the only way out of a mood is to go deeper in, and music certainly helps me do that. Usually when I listen to mood music at some point it won't appeal to me anymore, and then I know the mood's over!


Apollo's Song / Osamu Tezuka : 5 of 5

Apollo's SongI'm absolutely stunned by the number of masterpieces I have yet to discover written by Osamu Tezuka, the greatest mangaka of all time! Many of these books are huge, such as the 540 page Apollo's Song, which I recently read and completely enjoyed. I have no idea how Tezuka produced so much art in his lifetime, especially when I think about the massive Phoenix saga, the Buddha series, and many others, yet he was still able to create deep and fascinating stand-alone stories like this one. Apollo's Song is about a boy named Shogo who has developed a hatred for love (due to his terrible childhood as the unwanted son of a prostitute) and suddenly meets a goddess who condemns him to an endless cycle in which he will fall in love, only to lose it again and again. Each chapter puts Shogo in different situations (often dreams or visions) ranging from Nazi Germany (where he is a soldier who falls in love with a Jewish girl) to an extreme future (where artificial beings have oppressed the human race, yet Shogo and the artificial queen fall into forbidden love). In the longest story (which is part of reality, rather than a dream) he falls in love with Hiromi, a doctor who attempts to treat his mental condition by training him to be a marathon runner, but of course this plot ends tragically as well. This manga has less humor than Tezuka's other works, but while the stories are overflowing with philosophical concepts and intense situations, they are never heavy-handed. The artwork contains many full-page spreads that are breathtaking with incredible details and beauty, and of course the characters are expressive in a way that only Tezuka can accomplish. I'm so excited that Tezuka's genius is recognized so these more obscure works are getting translated and published, and I only hope that I can experience them all someday (since there are so many more out there)!