Friday, June 30, 2006

Film From the Inside Out

A few people have e-mailed me and asked for advice on how to become a better story artist. A good story artist has to know how a film is put together. An extensive knowledge of cutting and staging (staging means where to put the camera to best tell the story) is essential. There are a few books on cutting, but I have never read much that deals with staging. Listening to director commentaries on DVDs is always a good way to learn about films but really insightful commentaries are few and far between. Most directors tell long boring production stories or spend all the time telling you where things were filmed and what was really on location and what was shot on a soundstage. Who cares? Talk about fimmaking and story! Ah well. Someday I will post some movies I have found to have good commentaries. Feel free to post suggestions in the comments!

A good place to start is all the Pixar movies. They all have excellent commentaries.

Anyway, there is really only one really foolproof way to study film and that is to simply study it. When time permits, here is one way I approach boarding a sequence: I will find a sequence in a movie that is similar to what I'm going to be boarding. I will put the DVD in my laptop and watch the sequence through once. Then I will watch it with the sound off so I can see how the visuals are carrying the story without the distraction of the sound effects and music. Then I will go through the DVD scene by scene, pausing on each scene and doing a quick drawing of each. This helps my mind see what is going on: it's a more active way of experiencing the movie than just watching it and helps me see what is going on. I look at how each idea is staged. What angle did the fimmaker pick to best show the idea? What did they do to make sure the cutting works?

What made me think of writing this post is that recently I was thinking about a scene I was going to board and one sequence I ended up watching as reference was from “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”. Of course, I wish I could say I was looking at “Citizen Kane” or something impressive like that but unfortunately not in this case. But Speilberg is like Pizza: even when it’s kinda bad it’s still pretty good.

This is one page of the drawings I did while going through the sequence frame-by-frame. They’re not great drawings at all – I had no idea I was going to post them here and actually I just retrieved them from the trash. They’re just quick little notes as I copy what I see – each one is done in a couple of seconds, and I didn’t really try to slavishly copy exactly what the frame was doing because I wasn’t looking at it for composition at this point – just doing little sketches of what shot followed what shot to try and get it straight in my head.

One of the first things you discover this way is how often live-action films disregard the accepted "rules" of filmmaking. There are many good books that cover these basics and talk all about the "no-no's" of cutting: you know, jump cuts and being careful not to confuse the audience by “crossing the line” or changing the screen direction between shots (click to read a definition of jump cuts and crossing the line. People in animation tend to be very slavish about following these rules. Live action films tend to play a little fast and loose with these "rules", and I think that’s part of what makes live action films more exciting, in a way. Audiences are so visually sophisticated that they don’t need us to adhere to these rules all that much anymore, but animated films still do.

If you are looking for a good primer on the rules of film cutting, try "The 5 C's of Cinematography" or "Shot by Shot".

Live-action films stage things in different ways than animated films. When storyboarding, it’s important to board everything in a way that is going to be clear to everyone watching the reels. So you usually end up only showing what you need to get the idea across. Showing more than you need can confuse the audience about what is important within the frame and what they are supposed to be looking at. Movement is one of the most important ways to attract the human eye in a shot – a tiny figure in a giant landscape will attract the eye if it’s the only thing moving. But storyboards don’t have movement to draw the eye, so we have to use color or contrast to draw the eye – or better yet, stage each shot so that the most important part is easily seen within the composition.

For example look at this shot – the idea this shot is communicating is that Indy (Harrison Ford) has just handed his gun to Willie (Kate Capshaw) and told her to hold it. Click for a better look.

As Indy reaches for more bullets Willie fumbles with the gun for a beat

And then she fumbles it right out the window.

If you drew this as storyboards it would be really hard to stage it this way and get away with it. If the idea is that Willie fumbles with the gun, why do we need to see the kid in the front seat? What is Indy doing? No matter how you drew him he would probably come off as a confusing indistinct shape and be distracting to the most important idea – that the girl is fumbling with the gun. People would be looking at the weird Indy shape, trying to figure out what it is and also probably looking at Short Round’s face, because faces tend to draw our attention. If you really wanted to stage this action in this way you would probably throw Short Round and Indy into silhouette so they become less important and then put color on Willie to make sure the audience looked at her. But I think if you storyboarded it this way, most animation directors would say that, at least for storyboarding, this is a pretty complicated way to stage some simple action.

I guess what I’m trying to say is to look at live action films and figure out how they are put together. Get inspired by the way they stage things, so you aren't falling back on staging things the same way every time. Look at how live action films are staged and cut and learn from them. Animation should be as sophisticated as live action films should and they usually aren’t.

But also don’t storyboard in a way that sacrifices clarity for cleverness.

Among the many things to look for when watching live action is how the filmmaker uses values. How does the lighting tell the story? One of my favorite live action techniques is throwing everything in shadow except the actor’s eyes. It makes you focus on their eyes without the cheesiness of an extreme eyeball close-up.

I put this one in black and white so you could see what I was talking about. Black and white movies have great lighting that is rarely matched by modern films…probably because old movie makers were ripping off great painters of the past. Today movie makers just rip off old movies (and yes, I am aware of the irony that this post is all about ripping off movies).

Look at movies and see how they stage things with a lot of depth when they want moments to play in a dramatic way.

Sometimes filmmakers stage things with a lot of depth to add to the beauty of a scene.

And then look at how they stage things flatly when they want something to play in a comedic way. Take a peek at this scene from “Temple of Doom” that’s trying hard to be funny. As Kate gets frightened by animals in the jungle, she runs back and forth in the Foreground in front of Indy and Short Round. She runs parallel to the camera and the two guys are placed on a plane parallel to the camera to create a couple of flat levels that is supposed to emphasize the humor of the scene (in theory anyway).

This is the "funniest" sequence I could find in this movie. Not a great example of flat staging, but anyway, it's something to look for in other movies. Comedy films tend to be staged more flatly to help carry the feeling of humor.

This supposedly funny bit is all about Kate Capshaw being surrounded by jungle wildlife and shrieking in terror. As she backs away from a snake, she runs into a monkey, etc. But this poor monkey looks more scared than Kate. It looks like someone threw him into the scene and he bolts out of frame as quick as he can.

Also as you look at films take a look at how they stage scenes of characters talking to keep them interesting. And look at how they use composition as a way to make things stay visually appealing.

Every film, good, bad or indifferent is a collection of choices made by the filmmakers, actors writers and everyone else who worked on the film. Look at them and evaluate where they suceeded and where they could have done better. There's no better film school than that!

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Last of Bill's Legal Pad

Too busy to write anything...just taking a second to post these. Click to see bigger.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Equal Time for The Big Guy

I know how many Milt-o-philes are out there and there's lots more Milt to come. But this is a storyboard site first and foremost so....let's take a break from Milt with some equal time for our patron saint...I mean Bill Peet.

These are from the collection of Andreas Dejas (who did not give them to me). He generously shared them with the recent storyboard trainees here at Disney, who generously shared them with me. They're from a legal pad that Bill used to thumbnail some ideas for "Sword in the Stone". If you look in Peet's Autobiography there is a drawing of himself working like this on a legal pad while vacationing with his family. As far as I know he worked this way a lot. He often spoke in interviews about "filling legal pads with ideas".

Now some people may be tempted to compare Bill's thumbnails with Milt's and decree that Bill doesn't compare to Milt...well, I disagree with you. It's apples and oranges - both were filling different functions.

Nevertheless, I have known many people who determined that "Bill couldn't draw very well". I vehemently disagree. Go look at Bill's boards for "Dumbo" in the "Paper Dreams" book. Bill's sketches are amazing for that stuff. He put a lot into them - tons of textures, lots of suggested lighting, etc. But as the years went by, he drew less and less in his sketches. Becasue any story artist has to crank out tons and tons of sketches, and drawings keep getting cut out of the reel and replaced and rethought. Why put all the extra drawing and detail in there? No story artist has time for all that, and no story artist would stay sane for long if they put all of that into every sketch only to see it replaced endlessly with another idea. So Bill only puts what he needs to put in there to put the idea over. When he needed to draw a lot of stuff to put over an idea, he put it in. When he didn't need to, he didn't. This, to me, is great drawing. A great story sketch communicates what it needs to and no more. This may sound crazy but any board artist who has done this long enough realizes that communicating more than you need to creates confusion.

Also bear in mind the very different purpose of Bill's thumbnails and Milt's thumbnails. Bill is staring at the blank page - trying to figure out a sequence from scratch with nothing to go from. Trying to find a shape to the thing and order the events in the right way. So he's tackling the overall form of a big chunk of film. By the time Milt is thumbnailing, he knows exactly what the scene is about and what it needs to communicate. Milt's work, by definition, is much more focused on detail and subtleties.

Click to see bigger.

It is worth pointing out that everything I scan here has been given to me by fellow artists, not the Disney Company. The copies of artwork I recieve from the company come stamped "do not share or duplicate" and I will not break that agreement. But I still have tons of stuff to share legally!

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Milt Thumbnails

If you know much about Milt then you know he thumbnailed his scenes extensively. Supposedly he would try every way he could think of to do the scene; experimenting with different poses and expressions and attitudes. In one of the audio clips of him floating around on the web (I got it either from Jim Hull's site or The Animation Podcast) I think he talked about how he tried every variation of pose and attitude in the thumbnail stage. Then he would know exactly what worked and what didn't. In the course of his lecture he implied that he didn't have much use for comments from others about how to improve his scenes. After all, he had already tried everything in the thumbnail stage and figured out which idea was best. Anyone criticizing his work off the top of their head hadn't put as much thought into it as he had!

I thumbnail every sequence I storyboard for the same reason. Thumbnailing is a fast and easy way to try out different acting poses, layouts, compositions...everything that makes for a good sequence. If you don't thumbnail then you are just settling for the first idea out of your head. This works occasionally, but most of the time you want to dig deeper than your first idea. Just like Milt, you should strive for the best way to do it. Unlike Milt you should always be open to criticism about how your work could be improved (unless you happen to be a genius). If you don't thumbnail and you just jump in and start working you will undoubtably run into problems in the middle of your scene or sequence because you encounter a problem you didn't anticipate. Then you won't know how to get out of it!

Click to see these bigger.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Friday, June 16, 2006

Got Milt?

So every time I post drawings by Milt Kahl people always ask for more. People respond to Milt's drawings in a similar way to the way they react to Freddy Moore drawings. Why is this? Why don't people feel the same way about Ollie Johnston drawings, or Frank Thomas drawings?

Of course everyone always says Milt was a great draftsman. This is undeniably true. He could draw anything solidly and convincingly. But I think that's only part of the answer. A big part of what we think of as being a "great draftsman" is being a great designer.

Anytime people are "struck" by something - be it the work of a particular artist, or a corporate logo, or a Japanese cartoon character - it's a safe bet that good design is at work. It's hard to define what "good design" is, exactly, but we know it when we see it and it has a deep visceral impact. As you look at these Milt drawings, analyze them with these concpets in mind and see how these are reflected in his work:

Small, Medium and Large shapes

variety of shape - square, circular, triangular

Straights against curves

One side of the figure "squashes" while one side "stretches"



Line of Action

Tilts and Twists within the figure

Weight and Balance

Definite changes of direction - well defined "planes" on the surface of the figure

Surface lines wrap around the form

And so on...obviously there's a lot going on here. What I'm trying to get you to do is not just admire it. Get something out of it.

Click to make these bigger.

But Milt's drawings were never meant to be seen and admired as individual drawings, were they? They aren't drawings for their own sake. They are animation drawings which means that they are part of a scene. They are intended to be seen in sequence with other drawings to put over an idea - a piece of acting or action to help tell a larger story.

Most of what we know of Milt's work and think of as his signature stuff is from his later years. I can only assume that this is because there were no xerox machines before then. Now we know his later stuff because people would xerox his drawings and then they spread far and wide. But it's really too bad that we don't have more access to his early work - particularly I think of scenes that I know he did on "Pinocchio" and "Lady and the Tramp".

I would contend that Milt's animation was actually better back at that time.

Personally, I prefer actors who "disappear" into their roles. I don't like being aware that I'm watching a specific actor - it takes me out of the movie. And to me, Milt, in his later years, didn't "disappear" into his roles. His technique began to stick out. Any first year animation student can watch "Robin Hood" and crow "Hey, that's a Milt scene!". But is that a good thing? Isn't that distracting from the overall story? And the believeability of "the illusion of life"? Animators like Frank, Ollie, Eric Larson and others were always good at animating in a way that put over the performance without you feeling the animator's hand at work so much. Personally I find that kind of animation more compelling and I think it serves the story and characters better.

There's no doubt that Milt was the greatest technical animator that ever lived. Without question, an amazing draftsman. But I suspect that, as Milt grew less and less interested in the Disney films (after "Jungle Book") he grew less interested in the characters and story and became more interested in the idea of doing each scene in a way that he found personally satisfying. Shere Kahn is the first character Milt did that begins to have so much "Miltness" to it that it stands out (or, arguably, his characters on "Sword in the Stone"). And he went on record several times saying that he wasn't that interested in the films made after Walt's death. So it's a safe assumption that he became more interested in the perfection of his own scenes than in working with other animators to create a seamless performance and a unified film.

Just my opinion, of course. To me a great drawing is a nice thing, of course, but an animation drawing or story sketch is only as "good" as the idea it's meant to communicate, and the extent to which it actually communicates. Good stories and performances are made up of good ideas. Good drawings are secondary to the idea.

Many of you may disagree. That's what the comments section is for, go to it.

Lots more Milt stuff to scan, all from the collection of Mike Gabriel, who let me copy his stack of Milt stuff. Thanks, Mike!!!

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Willard Mullins on Animals

The latest post over at the Asifa-Hollywood Animation Archive is from the Famous Artist Cartoon Course and it's an article by Willard Mullins on Drawing Animals. Great stuff!

It was on my list of stuff to post, so I'm glad they saved me the trouble!

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Harold Von Schmidt

Things are showing no sign of easing up anytime soon. For now, I will fill the void with this quickie from Harold Von Schmidt (no, he wasn't one of the Nazis on "Hogan's Heroes". He was an illustrator).

Sunday, June 11, 2006

More to Come

No, I haven't fallen off the face of the Earth, everything has been really, really busy. I've been working on a bunch of posts but they're not ready yet. I want to scan a ton of stuff but my scanner at home is too small and I haven't had a chance to scan stuff at work.

Soon I will scan all the Milt Kahl stuff I have, as promised. It's all big so I have to make time to do it at work. In the meantime, the best Milt Kahl drawing ever: a self-portrait as he gives the bird to King Leonidis.

In the future, even when pressed for time I will try to scan selections from the Famous Artists Course. They don't require much explanation. But things are crazy right now and I will resume a more frequent schedule when I can!

Saturday, June 03, 2006

There's More to Appeal

So I posted last night about appeal...and I felt unsatisfied that I didn't really articulate exactly everything that I wanted to. Appeal is such a nebulous subject and hard to express that I wanted to add some more. It's a very personal matter of taste as well. So scroll down and read that first post first! Then this one. No cheating!

Of course it’s an over-simplification to say that simplicity is the only thing that makes for an appealing drawing (see previous post below). I’m just saying that it’s
good insurance: if you feel like your drawing isn’t quite appealing enough, try simplifying and see if that helps. As far as drawing for storyboarding (my main focus here) it's a good rule of thumb to leave out what you don't need to aid in communication - the whole point of any storyboard drawing.

As I’ve said before I think proportion and rhythm are two other keys to appeal.

Proportion is a very subtle and important element in drawing. I can’t think of a better example than Mickey Mouse. Mickey is an extremely simple design but very challenging to make him look consistently appealing. It’s because his proportions are tricky. The relationship of how close his eyes are to his nose and how high his forehead is (and every other relationship on his figure) are very hard to keep just right. Floyd Gottfredson drew super appealing Mickeys. His proportions were always superb. He managed to even draw Horace Horsecollar and Clara Cowbell (or whatever their names are) with appeal and they are really dicey characters! Their designs are pretty weird. But he gave them proportions that I find very appealing.

Very few people can draw Mickey as well as Floyd. Just search around on the internet and I'm sure you'll see the difference after looking at a few other Mickeys!

Proportions are so subtle that a little difference can have a big effect. We’ve all traced over a drawing we like and then when we look at our tracing, it’s just not as good as the original. Making small mistakes in the proportions (as well as making the elements not relate to each other as well) is usually what makes our drawing appear not as good.

Floyd gave them a great rhythm too. This keeps them appealing as well. Check out all the great rhythms on this page (click to enlage)!

I think that’s what I don’t really like about Jack Davis (see previous post below). His sense of proportion, frankly, doesn’t appeal to me. I don’t really like his sense of rhythm too. Just my taste, I guess. It’s like me saying I prefer the Beatles to Eric Clapton or something. We all tend to like what we like.

Another thing I find really makes for appealing drawings (and great design) is to use a good variety of small, medium and large shapes. Large shapes give the eye a chance to rest. Small shapes draw the eye so put them where you want the viewer to focus his attention (usually the face and/or hands). Using a good variety of the three kinds of shape give good variety and appeal to a drawing.

Here's a design by Milt Kahl with a great variety of S, M and L shapes (click to see bigger). Great rhythm too.

And sometimes Jack Davis seems to get involved with drawing lots and lots of small shapes. I just don’t find that too appealing. That’s just me though!

Friday, June 02, 2006

Simplicity and Appeal...Are They Related?

I found this quote in a recent interview with John Lasseter:

There's that funny saying: "I'm sorry this letter is so long, but I didn't have time to write a shorter one." And it's so true. My older brother Jim, who passed away six or seven years ago, was a brilliant interior designer who studied Japanese design. What he loved about their approach is that they'll design something and then they take away until they can take away no more. We have adopted that same philosophy here in our films.

Jim influenced me in other ways too. One day he said something that really hit me: "You know, what I think makes sense in fashion design is to take a really wild fabric and then make a classic pattern or piece of clothing with it. Either that, or you take a classic fabric and make a crazy pattern with it." He said if you design things that way, there is something familiar for people to relate to. But if you do both - take a crazy fabric and make a crazy pattern - people can't make any sense of it.

Very interesting. Especially this line:

they'll design something and then they take away until they can take away no more

This is an essential element to what (I find) makes a drawing appealing. I have been harping a lot on one of my obsessions: every line in your drawing should contribute to ONE idea. If you're drawing a pose that is meant to suggest the character is drinking from a drinking fountain, eliminate every line and shape that doesn't contribute to that idea.

Take away everything that hurts the statement you're trying to make and a drawing will instantly get stronger.

Anyone who's ever designed a character knows how it goes: you start with a drawing that's busy and too complicated. You draw over and over it, refining the design. As you go, you lose what you don't need and simplify until you have something that seems to work (that's how it goes for me anyway).

That's why I love the work of Quentin Blake so much. Every drawing is super efficient. There's only as much there as needed to tell the story he's trying to tell. Nothing extra just to be fancy. And every line contributes to the statement he's making. Every line conforms to the Line Of Action.

I think that's a big secret to making an appealing drawing as well. I find that the simpler the drawing, the more appealing it is. Check out Jenny's recents posts about Freddy Moore drawings to see some proof of that. No one drew more appealing drawings than Freddy and his stuff is always simple. Simple yet very sophisticated.

In my younger days, I was always a big Jack Davis fan. I always thought he was such a great draftsman and for years I collected everything he did and studied it and copied it relentlessly (I even own an original drawing of his). And then one day it struck me that I didn't really find his drawings all that appealing. It's a personal thing, of course. I'm not denying that he's a master draftsman. He draws amazingly well. But being an accomplished draftsman isn't the same thing as drawing with an acute sense of appeal.

Jack draws simply sometimes and sometimes he draws with a lot of detail. He has a "realistic" style and a "cartoony" one too. I offer his work as a counter-point to Quentin Blake because I find that the more detail Jack adds the less appealing I find his drawings. That's why I tend to think that simplicity might be tied to appeal.

I find Jack's more cartoony stuff unappealing as well. One thing he does that I find unappealing is that he draws everything in the frame really solidly and semi-realistically until he gets to the eyes. For the eyes he draws weird cartoon symbols for eyes and it doesn't fit with the rest of the drawing. It looks "off" me, anyway.

There are, however, some artists that can add a lot of detail and yet still keep a sense of appeal. As I've said before, somehow Jordi Bernet can draw tons of detail (and disturbing subject matter) and yet always keeps it appealing. How does he do it? I guess he just has an innate sense of design that I find appealing. Also I feel like Jack Davis sometimes has lines in a drawing that don't seem to fufill any function. Bernet seems to always hace a reason for his lines. For example, all of his wrinkles in clothes describe forms by wrapping around the body. Sometimes Jack's clothes are just exceedingly wrinkled. Bernet only draws a lot of extra wrinkles if the character is an especially untidy person and he wants to show their character. Also Bernet is a master at making fabrics look different from each other - a silky blouse looks different than a stiff wool suit. Jack Davis doesn't seem to do that as much. All of his clothes strike me as having the same amout of wrinkles (but I haven't done a scientific study or anything).

Now that I think about it there are some other artists that consistently manage to break this "rule" (not much of a rule maybe). I will post some more examples soon. For now, all of you Jack Davis fans can start flaming me with your withering comments! Ready....go!