Sunday, April 30, 2006

More on "Real" Drama

As relates to my last post on "real" drama, it's worth pointing out that drama and conflict don't have to be "real" or "logical" to work. In fact I think the opposite is true.

Take "North by Northwest" for example. The central conflict is that Roger Thornhill is mistaken for someone else and pursued by secret agents, right? Well, that story line doesn't even follow a logical thread. I mean, for example - first these guys want information from him. When he doesn't give it to them they decide to kill him. When he foils their plan to kill him, he goes to the police and leads them to where the bad guys threatened his life. The bad guys see him bring the police to the mansion where they threatened him, and yet they still think he's a secret agent. If they think he works for the FBI or CIA or something, why do they think he brings local cops into it? What's a secret agent going to gain by bringing small-town police into his encounters with other powerful secret agents? How are they going to help? Shouldn't he use his resources as a CIA agent to battle them? And their first stated objective was to get information from him and then kill him, right? But they follow him as he seeks out the owner of the mansion where he was confronted by these secret agents. And when he catches up with this guy (Townsend) these bad guys murder Townsend and frame Thornhill for the murder. Okay, seriously, why do these bad guys think Thornhill is seeking out Townsend? Townsend is just a patsy. What kind of genius CIA agent would Thornhill be if he hadn't figured that out already? What do they think he's up to? And why haven't they figured out that Thornhill is a regular guy at this point? And why, if they wanted to kill him, do they murder Townsend instead? How does it help them to make Thornhill look like a murderer? If he really is an FBI or CIA agent, can't he explain that the bad guys did it and have the FBI or CIA believe him? It would have been just as easy to murder Thornhill as Townsend. Why didn't they just do that, if that's what they want to do?

And I like how, at the beginning of the movie, they went out of their way to make his murder look less suspicious by making it look like a drunken car accident. Later in the movie, they attempt to kill him by machine-gunning him from a crop duster. Yeah, that won't arouse any suspicion!

I'm not saying these are flaws in the movie. Quite the opposite! The movie works really well because you ALWAYS know exactly what Roger's immediate goal is at any point (i.e. find Kaplan, find Townsend, etc.). The movie is very clear about saying: this is what Roger is attempting to do. Once you are clear about what he's trying to do it creates great drama as you see what unfolds instead! And the stakes are very clear and emotional. He's an innocent guy who, all of a sudden is running for his life. And he can't go to the police. So he has to elude the police while proving his innocence. And then the girl he loves betrays him. And on and on - great twists and turns, and his life is at stake. Everybody gets that, so it's easy to get on board and relate to it and be scared for Roger. If the stakes are clear and emotional and really visceral, the events themselves don't have to track in a logical way. Emotion always trumps logic. The audience WANTS to suspend their disbelief and be scared, sad, frightened, etc. So if you disregard logic in a way that doesn't talk down to them, and make the emotional component work, you can play a little fast and loose with the logic. As a matter of fact, I think you have to. I think every great film has at least one plot hole somewhere. It may be impossible to tell a great story without one.

And this is something I think that has been a problem at Disney in the past. It's always easy to pick on logic. Anybody can do it and it makes you look smart to poke logic holes in a story. So people used to give a lot of logic notes. It can really take a lot of the entertainment out of a story without really addressing what makes a story work. Instead, you should focus on making the emotion strong enough and make the emotion feel REAL enough that the audience overlooks minor logic flaws. Like I said with "Ice Age", it's a preposteous concept - A Wooly Mammoth, a Sabre-tooth tiger and a sloth work together to return a baby to it's parents. What?!? But I bought it and believed in the characters because it worked. The emotion overrode what might sound like a ridiculous concept to someone with limited imagination. And the stakes were real and gettable and visceral, so I could follow it and invest in it emotionally.

There are two things I have found myself saying at Disney over the last ten years. Number one: a movie doesn't have to make total logical sense. A totally logical movie isn't a movie, it's a documentary. So that's what I say when people are trying to iron out all the logic bumps in a story.

Number two is about a situation we had at Disney as well. People were always trying to make the characters in our story go through some sort of logical psychological journey through the film. They were completely obsessed with tracking where the character was in every stage of their psychological transformation. What is Tarzan thinking in this sequence? Where is he on his journey to self-realization? How does this reralization lead to his next realization? And things like that. Which can be really important, don't get me wrong. You need to be in the character's head and "get" what they're thinking, for sure. But obsessing over that at the expense of the entertainment is a big mistake. Nobody wants to watch a logical psychological transformation, unless it's entertaining too! So I always compare this way of approaching the process to making a watch. You're making sure every (psychological) gear is in it's perfect place and functioning properly and engaging with every other (psychological) gear. And the end result "works" perfectly. Only it's about as entertaining as watching a watch work. Pretty dull, in other words.

Saturday, April 29, 2006


Don't read this next post if you don't want to know anything about "Ice Age 2". I didn't give away much, but thought I should give people the heads up. Also I should warn you that it's a really long post. You might want to go to the bathroom before reading.

Ice Age and Ice Age 2 and "Real" Drama

So I just figured out how to see where every visitor to my blog is referred from. And I'm linked to by a few screenwriting sites. Oops! Not much of a screenwriting site here.

I knew the concept behind my blog was a little "narrow" when I started it. A story artist is a pretty rare thing and not too many people in the world care much about both drawing and storytelling, I guess. Mostly I talk about drawing because people seem more interested in that here, and it's a lot easier (and less controversial) to talk about.

But I will fufill my story public service duties here for a sec by talking about "Ice Age". I saw "Ice Age 2" last weekend and it reminded me of something that I'm very aware of these days.

Let me begin by saying that I've always avoided talking about contemporary movies and their relative qualities. I don't want to offend anyone, and I'm certainly not trying to pretend like I've worked on the greatest movies of all time and that I am looking down from my ivory tower of perfection on inferior films below me. Quite the opposite! If anyone is interested I will post my resume and I will prove it. Anyway, film is very subjective, every viewpoint is valid, etc. etc. you know all the caveats. I'll just share an opinion here for a sec. Indulge me.

When the first "Ice Age" came out, I really enjoyed it. I was quite impressed with Blue Sky's first movie. Some people at Disney didn't care for it and found it to be a bunch of slapstick gags and some cheap sentiment. Again, that was just their take. I always enjoy hearing other people's opinions. I learn a lot from hearing contrary viewpoints - don't ever shut down and stop listening because someone disagrees with you. Listen up and learn!

So anyway, at the time I was working on "Home on the Range". Our movie had three characters that were pursuing one goal (three dairy cows haeding off into the wild west to save their farm). Many people had made the argument on "HOTR" that when you make a movie about three characters pursuing a goal that they should all be in it for DIFFERENT reasons. The argument went that if they were all in it for the same reason, why have three characters? Why not have just one cow going off to save her farm?

Well, the original "Ice Age" did just that. All three of them were going on a journey together for different motivations (I hope I'm remembering right). It creates instant conflict between the characters, which makes for instant drama. And one of them had a secret - the sabre-tooth was leading the others into a trap, which heightened the drama so much. As they got closer to their goal, the tension mounted and mounted. The audience knew Diego was struggling with whether to betray his new friends or betray his old pack. Great conflict, great drama.

And the whole set-up was so simple and gettable (I haven't seen it since then, so forgive me if I'm fuzzy on the details). But the idea of a lost baby and three animals are trying to return it to his parents - so simple and so visual. See the baby with the parents, see the baby seperated from the parents, see the animals debate whether to return him to his family and decide to go. They have a real, tangible goal and destination. This is the key to creating tension, because you always know how close or far they are form suceeding. You can cut back to the parents from time to time to keep their tension alive and see where they are so we're oriented as to where they are in relation to our three heroes and the sabre-tooth pack. Thsi is a key to drama - be CLEAR about the goal and how close or far away your hero is from it. If we don't know when he's far away and/or on the verge of getting his desired goal, how will you increase tension as you go? And if your desire isn't a tangible, physical thing - if it's a "mental" goal without a physical counterpart - how will there be any tension?

Of course the physical goal is important, but the real "meat" of the story was the relationship between the characters. Like many "road movies" it's about three characters who don't like each other, go on a journey and learn to be friends. The journey is just an excuse to tell this story. If the three of them sat around in a cave and talked through their problems and became friends.......well, it probably wouldn't have made as much money, I'm just guessing here. So the physical journey is just an excuse to tell the emotional story and gives you different places to go and visit and have fun physical obstacles that they can work through together and bond and do entertaining stuff at the same time.

And that baby - it just works really well as a device. The baby's cute (never seemed to get cross over into "cloying" territory, to me) and creates instant empathy - you like the guys who are trying to return it, and the thought of that evil sabre-tooth guy eating the baby creates some instant feelings in an audience. You don't want that to happen.

What I'm trying to say is that the first one was succesful - to me -in creating very real conflict and very real drama. As weird as that sounds. Even though it was an animated film and the goals might SOUND outlandish and cartoony, I bought them.

Will these animals be able to return the baby in time? Will the sabre-tooth tiger betray the Wooly-Mammoth and the Sloth or decide to protect the baby in the end and become friends with them?

It's very gettable and very clear. And I went with it. And if you asked anybody going into the theatre those questions, they already KNEW the answer. We all knew the movie would have a happy ending. We weren't going to see a sabre-tooth tiger eat a human baby right before the end credits. We all knew that. And yet the tension sucked me in and I enjoyed watching the HOW of what happened even though I could have guessed that it would have a happy ending.

But that's what I felt was lacking in Ice Age 2: a sense of real drama to make me get caught up in the story. The goal of Ice Age 2 just feels very contrived and false. A group of animals (including our three heroes) lives in a big canyon. One day they realize that the canyon is surrounded by walls of ice that are melting and then a vulture tells them that in three days the ice will collapse and flood the canyon.

This is weird for a couple of reasons. The vulture TELLS them this. They don't figure it out on their own. The vulture even tells them "I don't know why I'm telling you this, but I am. And those of you that don't make it, I'm going to eat!" Weird. Why is he telling them? And anytime you're telling the audience what the conflict is, it's not going to be interesting. The first Ice Age SHOWED you what the conflict was in a clear, compelling way. You saw how the problem developed visually and saw our characters discover it and decide what to do about it. Much better than being told. So after the vulture tells them this, he tells them that they have three days to walk through the canyon and away from danger by reaching a BOAT on the far side of the canyon.

Okay, this didn't seem compelling for two reasons. How does the vulture know the ice will hold for three days? What is he, a geologist? An iceologist? As soon as he said "three days" you thought: why is it always three days in movies? Why not four? Two and a half? Eighty-three?

Kind of preposterous. But maybe you could buy him saying that. But it also seemed weird when he said there was a "boat" at the far end of the canyon that they could use to save themselves. Hearing a prehistoric vulture use the term "boat" was strange (to me). I immediatley wondered: is it really a boat? Or something that he refers to as a "boat" but is just a giant log or something. And if it is a real "boat" how did it get there? Are there people on it? Is this vulture a geologist AND a ship-builder? It raised a lot of distracting questions.

Including: is he lying? He's a vulture. Cartoon vultures are traditionally evil, right? And he SAID he wanted to eat them after they died! So is he just messing with them? Trying to get them to walk themselves to death? And unlike the parents in the first movie, you can't cut ahead to the boat and see where it is, how close the animals are, etc. So you never know if they're close or far away from their goal. And you don't know if their goal is even real! So that takes a lot away from the drama, I think.

And they're not each going for a different reason anymore. Now they're all friends, so there's not much conflict between them. You can tell, because Diego - a great character, and a great voice in Denis Leary - is pretty much absent from the movie. He slinks by in the background and throws out insults at Sid from time to time, but that's about it. So the conflict between the characters is gone, which hurts the conflict and drama of the film. There's a subplot about him being afraid of water and conquering that fear, but it just feels "stuck on" and not organic and compelling like his HUGE arc in the first film.

The other subplot that they added for drama was one in which Manny (the Mammoth) thinks he may be the last one of his species. A very cool idea. I was intrigued by that, and they had a lot of fun making jokes at his expense at first. I thought that was great. But then he meets a female Mammoth.

But, what are you going to do so that he still has a problem? That story is resolved as soon as he meets a female Mammoth, right? Which hurts the drama, so they didn't do that.

The filmmakers decided to make it harder on Manny and they gave the female Mammoth a problem: she doesn't THINK she's a Mammoth. She thinks she's a prairie dog (or something like that - a little weasel-type creature) because she was abandoned as a baby and was raised by these things.

It was really hard to buy that she thought she was one of these tiny creatures when she's like three tons and fifteen feet tall. It made her seem kind of stupid and/or crazy, and either attribute makes me not like a character, usually. And it seemed like her problem could be solved easily - look into a puddle, lady! I didn't want Manny to end up with someone that ditzy. He deserves better.

And she had these two weasel friends she hung out with, that were kind of irritaing. But again, I forgive that stuff when the real drama and the real goal are working. I'll forgive a lot when those are working well. But her problem of thinking she's not a Mammoth seemed contrived and stuck on for the sake of telling the story. It didn't seem compelling or real. I wasn't really rooting for her to solve her problem. And again, it's a problem that's IN HER HEAD, so I don't know when it's going to be solved - how close or far away she is from figuring it out. So it lacked drama and tension.

To me.

Anyway, I was struck by those differences in the two movies when I was watching Ice Age 2. There was plenty of great work in both movies and I'm not minimizing that. But to me the story didn't work as well in the sequel as in the first one.

I really don't want this site to become about arguments in taste or movie reviews, and I have always been hesitant to write a post like this. Taste is subjective! Feel free to share your opinion in the comments if you feel so compelled. Like I said, I learn from contrary opinions. I welcome them. Even better: post your comments on your own blog, or start one and write about Ice Age 2 and/or Ice Age if you want. If you do it, let me know - I'll post a link!

It's easier for me to talk about other people's movies than the ones I've worked on because I don't want to offend the people I've worked with or hurt their feelings by criticizing their ideas or decisions. We argue all the time with each other about story stuff all the time at work but I don't want to air our dirty laundry in public. I have a tremendous amount of repect for anyone that makes movies, especially the geniuses I get to work with every day. It's incredibly hard to try (and sometimes fail) in such a public arena. Anyway, as I always say, you get what you pay for on this site. Consider my "Ice Age 2" review in the same context.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Willard Mullins: Line of Action

This is from an old book called "The Complete Guide to Drawing, Illustration, Cartooning and Painting." For a book with such an ambitious title it doesn't really deliver as much as you might hope. These two pages are the best thing about it.

This is by Willard Mullins, a great newspaper cartoonist who specialized in cartoons about baseball. This is an interesting piece about how he approaches his work by starting with the line-of-action.

Some drawings he did of a baseball player. Interesting, of course, because the poses look ones you'd associate with a ballerina, not a baseball player.

Again, note how E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G on the figure is made to follow the Line Of Action. I used to have a life drawing teacher who said that even the bellybutton should reflect the pose. It should bend, twist, squash or stretch to fit what the figure is doing. As it does in real life, of course!

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Simplicity, Appeal, Line of Action, a lot of blabbity blah and Jordi Bernet

It's been hard to blog lately because of many reasons. One of the things that makes it so hard to post is that I always try to be concise, clear and professional in my writing as I blog. It takes a lot of time and effort to be coherent and re-write until I am as concise as I can be.

But that is difficult and time-consuming. It takes some of the fun out of blogging to feel pressured to be accurate and precise and write a perfect post each time. So today, I am taking a vacation and I'm going to do soemthing fun. I am going to ramble! There are a million things I want to talk about on this blog. I've gotten to maybe six of them. So here is a clearinghouse - some thoughts that are rolling around in my brain. I always try not to talk about myself on the blog - I try to keep it about the work. But today I will be self-indulgent and talk about me and how I think just for a little bit, because I am trying to say soemthing nebulous and personal, and I am free-associating here because it seems like fun for a change. And I apologize for the scans - I did them at too low a resolution. They're too small, I know. Hopefully you can appreciate them anyway. Perfectionism can keep me from posting, and I'd rather have a sloppy post than not be blogging! I will scan other Bernet drawings soon, at a better res. Some "risque" images ahead.....if you are easily offended, please click over to instead of reading further! Anyway.....

Line-of-action (or gesture line) is such an important topic to me. I love directional drawings. It's such a modern idea - painters of old were so preoccupied with portraying reality and didn't do this. I'm not actually that knowledgeable or interested in classical art (I know, I should be, it just doesn't do "it" for me) but I love the work of classic illustrators. Probably because drawing to me isn't about drawing for drawing's sake. I wouldn't draw except that I love the way drawing can communicate and tell a story. Many classical painters just seemed to be working around on the canvas to find something pleasing, but to modern eyes it can be hard to tell what they were trying to put over. You usually have to read about the paintings to understand what is going on in the peice.

But illustrators of the last century up until now face the same challenges that story artists and animators do. Telling a story with drawings. Every kid who loves to draw starts out by drawing what they like - aliens, monsters, whatever - and they draw what they can draw easily. That's how your love affair with drawing starts, right? But the thing that fascinated me about animation in particular was that you HAD to draw what you HAD to draw. You can't hide Aladdin's hands because you can't draw hands (like you can when you're drawing for fun in junior high). You gotta draw them, and they have to be doing what they have to be doing. They can't just be appendages at the ends of his arms.

One of the very first scenes I was given to animate was from "Beauty and the Beast". It's a scene of Phillipe the horse, running towards camera and jumping over the camera while Belle rides on his back. From bouncing ball to this in three years - sure, no problem, right? The whole reason I got issued the scene is that nobody else wanted to do it. No personality, just a pain to draw. But the point is that I couldn't change the staging to make it easier to draw. I couldn't get rid of Belle - she had to be there. I had to draw what had to be drawn. And I had to make it clear and tell the story too.

Again, that's why I love our business, and I could never have a job where I just draw whatever I want. What keeps me going is the idea of constantly being challenged to draw stuff that I don't know how to do. I experiment with every idea to figure out how best to do it, and that's the fun - finding the best way to tell the story, with drawings. I don't even get to draw much anymore...I'm in meetings 85% of the time. But the best part of my week is those precious few hours when I can sit and work out some drawing problems.

Anyway, what I'm trying to say is that I love directional drawings. I love drawings with a strong line of action. Even in a seemingly "static" pose - like when a character is standing upright, I love pointing every line upright. Or when a character is just looking to the right, I love pointing every line to the right. See below.

One of my favorite artists of all time is Jordi Bernet. Just like I said I'm not all that interested in Classical Art, I'm not all that interested in Comic Artists either. Most of the people I work with really like that stuff, and I totally respect that, but it doesn't do much for me...never has.

I don't know, I was never that interested in art in general. I always have gotten most of my inspiration from real life. I love watching people and figuring out why they do what they do. I love trying to get that into animation and creating original personalities. That's what gives me a kick. Everything - painting, sculpture, comics - it's all an abstraction of real life. So why not study the source material?

Anyway, there are few artists I really love, but Bernet is one of them. Everything he draws is really directional.

I talked about "appeal" before. Appeal is a vague term to describe a drawing that's pleasing to the eye. SIMPLICITY is a big key to appeal. Detail tends to "uglify" a drawing and it loses it's appeal.

Directional drawing is easier when you draw SIMPLY. One of the keys to really directional drawing is to make EVERY line on the figure "point" the way you want it to. Nothing on the figure fights the direction line. Once you start adding tons of detail, few people are good enough artists to make ALL of those little details "point" along the direction line. All the detail starts to point in different directions and you have a stiff-looking mess. So drawing simply can help you do very directional drawings and stay appealing at the same time.

But darn if Bernet isn't a good enough artist that he can do it both ways. His work on "Torpedo" has a ton of direction to it, and yet tons of detail as well. Lots of characters with well drawn clothes and faces full of wrinkles...but every detail contributes to the line of action! And even with all that detial, it always stays appealing (to me, anyway). How does he do it?!?

I love the combination of drawings that feel realistic and yet feel very caricatured. Compare and contrast, for example, some stuff by Moebius from "Blueberry". Really well drawn, TONS of detail, very realistic. Moebius is just going for solid, not trying for caricature.

It's worth pointing out that the story of "Blueberry" is very realistic, very dramatic. The "Torpedo" stories are humorous, more crazy action. Each style fits the material well. The Blueberry stories have a lot of realistic drama and action in them. The "Torpedo" style would undermine the realism of the stories and the drama would be diminished.

Flip through a "Blueberry" book sometime and then a "Torpedo" if you can. The "Blueberry" figures tend to be very straight up-and-down, like real people. The people in "Torpedo" are rarely straight up-and-down. They're full of movement, always jumping or diving or falling. Really animated. I always believe in drawing your figures with an action line that isn't straight up and down. It gives your drawings instant energy and a sense of direction.

Anyway, that's what makes the world so great - different strokes for everybody. I love Bernet, and that's just my opinion - no right or wrong about it. Moebius can do great caricatured stuff do, no doubt about it. I'd give my left arm to draw like either one of those guys!

And if you do go looking for Bernet stuff, be warned - he rarely draws anything that isn't pretty adult-oriented. If you're offended by violence, nudity or sex...........well, don't seek out his stuff. I wouldn't want to be responsible for offending anyone. And if you're offended by my meandering post, well.....

Blame Bernet for that too, what the hell.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Answering Emma's Question

Emma posted this great question in the comments section, and it deserves a good answer:

"How much of this - composition and emphasis through arrangement of elements and lighting - is a story guy's job and how much is a layout guy's? Where's the line?

Because a story guy has to get the point across, but doesn't design the whole thing (right?)"

And my colleague Mark Walton answered the question pretty definitively in the same comments section. The thing I want to emphasize - that I keep repeating - is something that I want to be clear no matter what. It's one of the immutable laws of storyboarding, and it's this:

Nice storyboards will never save a bad story. A good story is the most important thing, as we all know. So a good story illustrated with poor story sketches is always preferable to the alternative.

I talk a lot about drawing on this site. Some of it is really basic, and some of it is more high-end stuff for people who already know a bit about drawing. Just don't ever get the idea that I'm saying every story artist has to draw superbly well, that's not the case at all. The most important skill that a board artist needs is a good sense of story structure - how to put together a story, how to assemble a sequence, what makes a scene work or figure out why it's not working. If nothing else, a board artist needs to have a good sense of entertainment. Without that, nothing you board will be worth watching!

A good friend of mine always says "Storyboarding isn't about drawing. It's about ideas." There is no truer statement about what we do.

That's where drawing comes in, as Mark Walton mentioned. The more you can draw, the more you can communicate. The better you can communicate, the more range you have as a board artist. But the most important thing about any story sketch is that it should communicate the idea it is meant to express. If it fails to be a clear drawing then nothing else matters. That's the second immutable law about storyboarding:

If the drawing isn't clear, all the pretty drawing in the world won't fix it. A story drawing must be clear, first and foremost.

As Mark Walton mentioned, a lot of it has to do with the director, and also the type of movie. Some directors want to get the whole movie figured out as fast as possible so they can see the shape of it, because everyone knows that once you get the thing up once, you will change pretty much all of it as you go along trying to make it better. So why spend time on pretty drawings the first time around? Other films, ones that tend to be more technically challenging, or more subtle in their emotional range or storytelling, might require a bit more finesse and control in the boarding in order to judge if it's working. It's all on a case-by-case basis, and every film is different. Every studio is different.

But the whole point of my blog is this: as long as you are going to be a board artist, you will have to deal with these aread; how to tell a story, how to assemble a film and how to draw storyboards. For me, if I'm going to have to deal with those areas, then I'm going to want to learn as much as I can about them in order to be better at my job, and ultimately make my job easier. Plus if I'm going to spend the time doing something, I'd just as soon try to do it well. So I'll talk about a lot of stuff, some of it very relevant to the job and some tangentally so. Just remember those two "laws" I mentioned above to keep in all in perspective. A good story is always the most important part!

Friday, April 21, 2006

To Catch A Thief...part deux (and "talking heads")

That last bit I typed on the previous post - the part about Grace Kelly's face - reminded me of a story I heard once about John Ford. I am trying to recall it from memory...but it went something like this:

During the shooting of one of his films, John Ford and his crew made the trek to Monument Valley, where many of the famous John Ford landsape shots were filmed (to this day, no filmmaker shoots there, out of respect). But in the morning when the crew got up to shoot, it was raining something terrible. A studio executive who was with them looked out of their tent and said, "what the hell are you going to shoot in all this muck?" and Ford supposedly replied, "The most interesting and fascinating thing in the entire world: the human face."

As I said, from birth we are drawn to look at faces. We get all of our information from other people's faces: do they like us? Do they hate us? Are they going to attack us? Are they going to embrace us? So much of our actions in life are reactions to what we see around us, and faces are always an important stimuli.

People in the animation business are always trhowing around the criticism "it's just talking heads". Animation - particularly television animation - has become guilty of relying on a lot of close-ups to tell a story, because it's cheaper and easy to draw. It's really hard to storyboard a sequence the way it SHOULD be done, by finding the right staging for each shot to tell the story well (by that I mean: where do you place the camera to tell the story the most effectively?). It's so much easier to draw faces as people deliver their dialogue. So it becomes a crutch, and when people see it, they whip out the easy crticism: "ugh, it's just talking heads."

But many live-action films have long stretches of just "talking heads". I guess it's more interesting to watch close-ups of real actors than CG or hand-drawn ones.

But, of course, every animated film has it's share as well. why? Because they're necessary, of course! There are so many emotions that can only be shown in the face. And for those we need close-ups. How could you show two people talking intimately and falling in love is you weren't looking at their faces? It wouldn't seem sincere if you were looking at their whole bodies. And if you went through a whole movie without seeing an actor in close-up, you wouldn't feel that concerned for them or connected to them. Close-ups, which is how we tend to see people in real life when we are talking to them, make us feel connected to the actor and helps us feel empathy for them - which is necessary if you want your audience to be concerned when they are hanging off Mount Rushmore or something like that.

Anyway.........more screengrabs. This one cracks me up - it's a Hitchcock gag tableau! You HEAR a car wrecking (without seeing it) then cut to this - the comic tableau of how this police car got smashed. A wrecked car, a chicken and the cop on the radio saying "it was a, a chicken!" (in French).

An interesting angle from the car chase that led to the wreck:

Nothing too brilliant to say about these next ones. Just good composition: a nice uneven breakup of space, and no uninteresting or blank areas in the frame.

Lots of good questions and comments in the last post - sorry for not answering better, I will later. For now, I am still trying to recover and rest.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

To Catch A Thief

So I'm laid up for awhile after a surgery (nothing serious) and I ordered some movies from Amazon to watch while I recover. I ordered "North by Northwest" and they offered me the chance to buy "To Catch A Thief" for five bucks! I've never seen it, so I ordered it. I watched part of it today, not one of Hitch's best but even Hitch's weakest efforts are better than most movies. Here's some cool screengrabs.

Here's a cool framing device:

This next one is a cool example of an important aspect of composition in film: use the whole frame. If a car is travelling through the frame, don't have it zip quickly from one side to the other, that goes by too quick and it's unsatisfying. Plus it creates big, unused and uninteresting parts of the frame. Find a way to use the whole picture plane. It makes for longer, more interesting shots. A car chase over curvy roads is a perfect example:

One of the basic rules of composition is to never have two objects of equal weight and inportance on the screen. Usually make on bigger and one smaller. Or one dark and one light. See my previous post of Rowland Wilson's Composition Notes for an example of this. But sometimes it's unavoidable to have two people talking to each other. So here's some examples of how to create interest within the frame and still have two equally weighted figures. Making one high and one low is an easy one. Look at how Hitch created lines and rhythms within the frame to keep it interesting.

And here's some interesting framing caused by good use of lighting - go back and look at my Peter pan screengrabs in the archives and see how similar they were to this. Grace Kelly is talking about her her face is covered by shadow to emphasize the jewels. After all, the human face - even if it's not Grace Kelly's - is always what draws our eye. We can't help it- from the time we are born we are drawn to looking at our Mother's face to tell us if we are okay or not and through our whole lives we remain focused on faces - especially the eyes - no matter what.

Too True

My favorite quote about moviemaking (at least after all my years at Disney) from Francois Truffaut:

"Making a film is like a stagecoach ride in the old west. When you start, you are hoping for a pleasant trip. By the halfway point, you are just hanging on and hoping to survive."

Some snarkier people than me might say that watching a Truffaut movie is kind of the same way, but not me. No siree.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Follow Through

This is an old photostat from Disney that concerns "follow through". also known as "overlap" or "secondary action". My wife worked in the clean-up department at Disney and years ago she bought this from an animation art dealer. I think there's great drawing info here for animators and anyone else who draws.

If you don't know about this concept, it basically concerns things like hair and clothing. Anything that isn't a living form on a figure, but is influenced by the movement of the figure it's on. If you take a peice of ribbon and run around the house with the ribbon trailing behind you, then the ribbon is a good example of follow through. If you look at the ribbon and study it you might be surprised to see that the movement of it isn't random - it repeats the same action over and over. There are patterns to overlapping action that make them easy to analyze.

When I was animating for a living, there were some animators that would leave off the secondary action until they had worked out the action (and the acting) first. Then when the director approved the scene they would go back and add the hair, clothes, etc. Or even have an assistant do it for them. That way you're focusing on the most important part of the scene first without worrying about the secondary action.

Nothing wrong with this of course. Personally I couldn't do it, It drove me crazy because it always looked stuck on if you added it second. And drawing a bald or naked character just always looked so lame I couldn't bear to show it to a director. And as I've said before, for me my drawings have always been best when I conceived them all as one thing. Each drawing is one design in and of itself. How can you add later and have it still look good? This is why I don't use a Cintiq at work - it encourages you to work and rework each part of a drawing seperately. I hate that! If I don't draw it all as one thing (including background and all the characters all at once) then I never like it. I tend to draw really fast and the Cintiq and Photoshop can't seem to keep up with me...but I digress. This post is supposed to be about follow through!

Check it out and ask if you have any questions.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Richard Scarry: Line of Action

When I was a kid we never had any Dr. Seuss books in our house, except "Green Eggs and Ham" and "Cat in the Hat", I think. We never had Bill Peet's books either. We had a lot of books, of course, but I don't really remember much about any of them except for the ones by Richard Scarry.

I loved his books as a kid and I loved his drawings especially. They are interesting for this discussion because his characters don't tend to have a strong line-of-action. Look at this one - even in really extreme action, they tend to be straight up and down. By this period of his art, he tended to draw all of his characters that way.

It's a pretty common convention in animation that you shouldn't draw your characters straight up and down - they should always lean to a diagonal or a horizontal to break up the monotony of characters all standing upright all the time. And also in animation it's desirable to have the limbs and torso of the figure flow in and out of each other along one line of action. And you're supposed to have the hips tilt differently from the head and shoulders and add twists and turns in the figure for life and variety.

The thing is, Mr. Scarry breaks all of those rules...a lot. I always think of his stuff as a "paper doll" school of drawing, because it sometimes looks like the head and torso are one solid peice and the arms and legs are connected by brads to the shoulder and hip connections, so that they all move independently. His stuff is always very clear. A stronger pose or gesture wouldn't sell his ideas any better. The attitudes and emotions of the characters always come through loud and clear. And they have an undeniable charm. I think that has a lot to do with his poses.

This technique works particularly well for big characters, like bears. They don't look right if they have a really extreme line of action because they are big, bulky and full of muscle. They're not lithe, so they don't hit sleek and flowing gestures. If you draw a bear with balletic, graceful poses then you are saying something that doesn't feel bear-like, and you should only do that if it's your intention!

Also short characters might not have as much stretch and flexibility in their skeletons as a tall character. You might want to keep little or short characters more contained in their line-of-action. A tall character can stretch out more when they move and hit more graceful fluid poses than a little squat character can.

Some of his stuff almost has the quality of Egyptian art. The head gets turned to profile while the ahoulders, pelvis and torso face the viewer straight on. Then the feet are both turned out to profiles (see the cowboy bunny below with his hands in the air). This could easily look incredibly stiff, but the variety of his shapes and the rhythms of his lines keep his stuff very appealing and (to me, anyway) his drawings have a lot of life and personality to them.

These are from a book of his that hasn't been in print for a while (to my knowledge) called "Tinker and Tanker". It's a lot older than some of his stuff and the characters have a little more variety in their gestures. But even when firing guns and leaping into the air with alarm they stay pretty contained and straight up and down.

Anyway, I post this stuff as the couterpoint to the earlier line-of-action stuff. It manages to be very clear and energetic while breaking some generally accepting ideas about animation drawing. Obviously you could compare it to a lot of television animation where the body is reused and only the arms and legs move. Maybe Scarry was influenced by those animators or vice-versa, I don't know.

Anyway, take a look and see what you think. Even more to come on this topic!

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Petting A Cat

As I've said from the beginning, my point-of-view at this stage of my life is that both drawing and storytelling are similar in one way: each discipline involves very simple truths. The trick in doing both well is to remember the basics, know when and how to apply them, and constantly repeat them with greater and greater complexity.

Sometimes it seems to me that the key to making a great movie can be summed up this simply:

Make the audience feel an emotion without them sensing that they are being manipulated.

Director Frank Darabont talked about a scene in "The Shawshank Redemption" that was a really emotional scene. He asked the conductor to score the scene in a unique way: to start the music cue so softly that no one could hear it and gradually increase the volume so that the audience wouldn't really "sense" the soundtrack intruding and pushing them to feel something. A fascinating idea!

Frank likened this problem - of creating emotion in the audience without them feeling manipulated - to "petting a cat". If you try to sneak up on a cat to pet it, you will startle it and it will bolt. Or if you try to grab a cat and pet it, it will squirm out of your hands and skitter away. You have to ease up to a cat and earn it's trust, and then maybe it'll let you pet it.

Audiences are the same way. You have to approach them honestly. And you have to create emotion in a way that feels sincere and earned. And if they ever start to feel like you're pushing the emotion on them then the tentative bond you have with them is lost, and you can't get it back. Once the manipulation is "felt" it's all over.

Easy to say, hard to do. But all of you know what I eman, because we've all been in a movie where they filmmaker blew it. They tried to force you into feeling something without earning it. And you probaly started to feel resentful, and you didn't enjoy the rest of the movie.

Anyway, I promise: more on line-of-action soon. Really.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Don't Get Comfortable

Well, the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim beat the Vancouver Canucks tonight to ensure themselves a spot in the playoffs. Which reminds me of my favorite quote from an athlete:

"I never get comfortable. To get comfortable would hurt my development."

-Andy McDonald, forward for the Mighty Ducks, when asked, as a rookie, if he was starting to get comfortable with his new team.

This is so true for everyone in life, especially artists and filmmakers. To get comfortable is to get complacent. To me, the only person who deserves the title "artist" is someone who is working to get better at what they do. I think an 11-year-old who draws every night and tries to draw better deserves the title more than a 45-year-old industry veteran who relies on the same tricks day after day and thinks he doesn't need to improve. I would call a guy that scoops ice cream for a living and tries to do it better every day an artist before I would confer the title on a sellout painter who cranks out the same canvas day after day. To be alive is to grow. To be stagnant is death.

Photo of me (inside the red frame) at a recent game where the Ducks beat the Florida Panthers. Second row! Pretty sweet, huh?

Douglas MacArthur said "There is no security in this life. There is only opportunity." If you are worried about losing your job by doing something that's too daring, then you aren't being creative. Everyone remembers the pioneers who pushed the boundaries. Nobody remembers the ones who played it safe.

When Thomas Edison was trying to invent the light bulb, he tried thousands of different materials as a filament. None of them worked. Someone asked him if he was tired of failing. He said (something akin to) "I haven't failed. I've successfully identified thousands of things that WON"T work!" You can't succeed without failing. If you gave up trying to walk the first time you fell down, you'd still be crawling.

And Rob Minkoff was famous for saying "It's better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission". Don't wait and ask for permission - do the daring thing right now and see how it flies. Sometimes it works! When it doesn't, wel...then you beg.

(Just don't come looking for me if this gets you fired. You don't HAVE to take my advice! It's only worth as much as you paid for it).

More to come soon on the Line-of-Action!

One More Look...

I couldn't help but notice how cool this is. On this one, the line-of-action on the cop is all diagonal towards Mickey to emphasize that he's looking at Mickey. But then his badge is all horizontal, which acts as an accent to the diagonal and your eye goes right to it. If the badge was on a diagonal too you wouldn't see it as easily, but this way you can take in the look and the badge all in one glance.

What's the cop saying? No idea.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

More On Line of Action

Allright! My phone service has been restored! Thanks to everyone for being so patient.

Is anyone confused by the term "Line of Action"? I keep using the term as it was used in Preston Blair's book on Animation. I assume that anyone interested in the topics that I talk about would be familiar with the book. If you don't already have it, has it for under $8! To find it on Amazon, just search for "Preston Blair" and get the one called "Cartooning: Animation 1". Even if you're not interested in animation it's great help for anyone who wants to learn about drawing.

I usually don't post stuff from books that are still in print, but here's the part of that book that concerns "Line Of Action".

A good Line of Action is really important in any drawing. It helps organize what you're trying to say into one thought. Any drawing should only try to say one thing - it's hard enough to draw a character doing ONE thing and put it accross clearly. Trying to draw a character doing TWO or MORE things simultaneously is incredibly difficult and usually a recipe for disaster. It invariably leads to confusion.

Over the years I've learned a few things I would add here about Line of Action. I think you should always keep the line-of-action simple. I think a gesture, in order to have any kind of punch to it, needs to be based on either a straight line, a curve, or an "S" curve. Those three types of lines have direction and force to them. Anything else, like a zigzag or a more complicated series of curves, loses it's ability to convey an action or direction.

These are from a page out of Bill Peet's Autobiography. Study each one - each has a line-of-action that is either a straight line, a curve, or an "S" curve.

Years ago, fellow Disney artist Wilbert Plijnaar posted these Daan Jippes comic pages over at the cartoonretro forum. They had a big impact on me - I was struck particularly by how extreme the line-of-action was on each drawing. He was really adept at making EVERYTHING subsurvient to the gesture line. Mickey's clothes and ears and entire expression became part of the line-of action. And the amazing part was he was able to do it without destroying the identity of the forms. If you push a line-of-action too far, or in the wrong way, you can sacrifice the structure of what's underneath and you're left with something that feels like it's made out of jelly with no skeleton - that's not good. Check out the gestures on these crows - in lesser hands they might have started looking like snakes or something, but they don't.

Also, looking at his stuff, I was struck by how he pushed every line on the figure in the same direction as the gesture, but he was ALSO minimizing any lines on the figure that went opposite to the gesture - which really gave the line-of-action a lot of power. (Check out this section from a handout I did for an explanation).

Okay, here's the whole crow bit. Leave a comment and let me know if anything I've explained seems unclear...I have more to say about this so hopefully, if it's confusing, I can clarify in future posts!

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Appeal...part one

This is a section from a handout I did recently for a lecture at CalArts.

I've been talking a lot about layout and composition but I definitely want to talk about drawing characters as well. I've been remiss not to get into this sooner...but my rainy day technical problems (see previous post) force me to abandon my plan and post what I have available to me at work!

Appeal is a very very hard subject to's very elusive and hard to quantify. I don't know much about it myself! But this section touches on so, so, so many things I want to cover in detail in the future. So check it out and I will build on all of these concepts more and more in the future.

The three concepts I talk about first - rhythm, variety of shape, and proportion - are three huge, huge secrets to doing great character design. I really wanted to talk about these in depth....but again, maybe there's a benefit to my rainy day dilemma of just throwing all this out there. Read this stuff and I will build on these simple concepts as we go.

A big key to great drawing - in my mind, anyway - is GROUPING. Any drawing can be improved by unifying it. A drawing should feel like one thing...not a bunch of human parts stuck together on a background that is made up of different peices of landscape. Many drawing books encourage you to think of humans or animals as being made up of different sections as you draw. That can be a big help, and definitely works well for some people. But my approach is to try and learn everything I can about the subject before I draw it - know the skeleton backwards and forwards, and know the musculature backwards and forwards and draw the subject as ONE THING as you draw. Because the gesture of whatever you draw should be consistent within all the parts and give them a unified direction. If you're thinking of the figure as different peices it's hard to give them a unifying overall gesture and line-of-action.

At least that's my goal anyway....I'm still working on the knowing everything backwards and forwards bit.

Again, much much more on this to come.

For now, try this out yourself - if you're unhappy with a drawing, look and see what you can "group" together to simplify the pose and give the figure or object more direction or a better gesture.

Anyway, take a look, and I will try to add to all this stuff when my issues are resolved. Know that this is just the very tip of the iceberg on all of these issues. If anything seems confusing, don't worry, I will blab about it ad naseum when I can!

Please Stand By...

Local storms here in Southern California have knocked out phone service to my house, making it impossible to access the internet from home, so I haven't been able to post this week. I will try to steal some time from my schedule at work today to post something new!

Of course this is a rather small annoyance compared to some parts of the US where storms have ruined people's lives this week. My condolences and best wishes to anyone affected by storms elsewhere right now.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Art Appreciation: Bill Peet (part two)

More great screengrabs and some (not so great) gabbing to go with them.

These first two drawings were placed together on the DVD but I don't think they were meant to be in continuity together - the blue spots on the second drawing would suggest that they are from the part when Mim is sick, and her attitude when she's sick would be totally different from her attitude in the first sketch.

Here's the cool thing about this sketch: how Bill made it clear she was SNEEZING out the flames and not intentionally spitting fire. If we had the anticipation drawing, that would clarify that action for sure, but here you can tell it's accidental by the way her body is being thrown back, particularly the foot that is up in the air. If Mim was breathing fire in a purposeful, menacing way (as she does before she gets sick) both feet would be on the ground and she would be aggresively leaning forward in a threatening way, I'm sure. Here she's clearly off balance, tossed back as you are when you sneeze. Her expression - especially the way the eye is handled - reads as a sneeze. Her eyebrows would be lowered in a menacing glare if she was angrily directing the fire at Merlin. The gesture of the hand - it looks like it's flinching - seems very accidental as well. If she was being threatening I'm sure it would be more of a fist or a scary-looking claw.

Wart and the Owl almost get cooked.

On this next one, I like how Bill threw Wart and the Owl's faces into silhouette because their expressions are incidental to the meaning of the sketch. The focus is on the letters on the board, not how either one of them feels about it. And you wouldn't really see much of either one of their faces from this angle anyway. The greatest contrast - black on white - is reserved for the area where he wants you to look: the area around their faces and the chalk. The lighting doesn't particularly follow a logical plan but it works well to frame the figures.

Nice composition - the three objects of interest aren't in a straight line. They form a triangle between the gears, Wart and the Owl. There's black-on-white on the gears and on the Owl to help draw your eye, and on the chair above Wart as well. I like how the area in front of his face is clear to give his look some room to breathe. And the areas of clutter and detail - the skull, books, beakers and the rest - are covered with tone to help pull it all together and keep it from distracting from the real emphasis - the two figures and the gears. I can't help but admire the way that box behind the owl's head forms a shape that helps to frame the owl's face. And in a subtle way the shape of the table top and the side of the table seem to form an arrow that points to the machinery.

And lastly....why, that's just a damn fine drawing of a dodo.