Monday, July 31, 2006

Design and Drawing

When I first went to CalArts in 1987 the very first class I had on my first day was design class. I thought to myself, "I'm going to be a big-time animator. Who needs design?" and I would spend much of my time in the class sitting and drawing (and not listening) while our great design teacher Bob Winquist talked, which is pretty much how I got through high school.

It only took me about fifteen years to realize that design is the key to everything in our business, especially being a big-time animator.

People who can draw well are good designers. Much of what we think of as "good draftsmanship" is just good design.

For years and years I thought that the key to good draftsmanship was knowing the structure of things. I thought I would produce good life drawings if I knew every muscle and every bone. I used to spend a lot of my free time drawing from anatomy books.

Then I read one of Robert Fawcett's books on life drawing. He claimed that he didn't really know all of the muscles. Basically he claimed he looked at the model and drew what he saw. He used the properties of design to create a pleasing drawing.

When I read this it was so shocking to me that I didn't understand it at first.

It makes total sense though. Maybe this is obvious to most of you. When you look at a great life drawing, are you responding to the fact that the scapula is in the right place? Or are you responding to the graceful curves of the body captured on paper, and the way they seem to occupy space, even though they are drawn on flat paper?

The latter, of course, but I never thought about that, or the implications of that: design is more important to a successful drawing than knowledge of structure. Don't get me wrong, I think a knowledge of structure is important too, but I think it's secondary to a good sense of design.

I've known a lot of people who could draw really well, and I have to say that I think most of them had a natural sense of design. They weren't completely aware of how they were exploiting good design, because it came naturally to them. I think that it's hard for people like that to articulate what they are doing because it comes effortlessly to them and they aren't really conscious of it. Then there are other people who have to learn design and make a deliberate effort to use it while they draw. These people may not always be the best artists but sometimes are probably better teachers because they can speak a bit more about what they are doing.

You may already know all of this or you may think that it is nonsense. But you can't deny that certain drawings are very powerful and have a deep impact on you when you see them. You don't always know why but you gravitate towards that drawing. And another drawing you see may not appeal to you very much. Why? It has to be design. There are certain elements of design that everyone seems to respond to. But there seems to be a frustrating lack of material written about design and what makes it work. And what you can find written about design is about design in the abstract and doesn't specifically apply to what we do.

So I made a list the other day of all the design principles I can think of and I am going to try and illustrate all of them here with examples. It may take a while to get through them all.

The internet is wonderful because so many people post amazing artwork. You can surf from blog to blog and see one piece of amazing art after another.

But just letting great artwork wash over you doesn't teach you much. What makes it work? Why is one piece better than another? These are the questions I always wonder about, and nobody ever seems to address. Or am I just not going to the good sites?

You have the ability to figure all this out yourself. Every artist makes choices. Just stop, look at the beautiful artwork, and ask yourself: why did they do this? Why did they do that?

Anyway, that's what I did here here. I figured I would start with some "simple" drawings. By that I mean there's not a lot of distracting rendering or anything. But there's no doubt this drawing is striking. So why is that? I am simply trying to analyze what makes me respond to the drawing. I am trying to articulate and analyze something that I feel in my gut...not easy to do.

I am formatting these on 8 1/2 by 11 paper so I can print them out and keep them in a binder that I have been filling with stuff on drawing for a couple of years now. Feel free to do the same.

Click to read and see these better.

As always leave a comment if you get something out of what I've written. If you think it's all hogwash then tell me that too. Any viewpoints or observations from others are always welcome.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

The Future! Part Three

The last two of Mr. Gulino's concepts of "focusing your audience on the future" and the two "most powerful" ways to do it: Dramatic Irony and Dramatic Tension.

Also, interesting, in the section on Dramatic Tension is an interesting interpretation of why a movie needs (at least) three acts. Aslo you'll see that he starts to talk about "Sequence Structure", which is mostly what the rest of the book is about: an approach to movies that involves looking at them as a series of eight sequences and why this seems to work in many movies. Most of the book, in fact, is analysis of several varied films and how they reflect this eight-sequence structure and how they use these four variations of "looking into the future" in different ways.

Click to see bigger.

Whew! Enough talking about story. Let's take a break from the story yakkity-yak and I will try to talk about drawing for a while.

A story artist's job consists of drawing and storyboarding but also sitting around and discussing the structure of the movie and brainstorming how to make the movie better. In the periods where I tend to be in meeting talking about stuff I tend to blog about story. Then in the rare periods where I get to sit and draw I tend to talk about drawing. These days I am sick to death of talking about story and I hardly remember how to draw...I will try to write something interesting about drawing soon.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The Future! Part Two

So back to reprinting Mr. Gulino's book without permission (see previous post)...

According to Mr. G there are "Four basic tools that have been employed successfully to keep the audience attention into the future." He lists them in what he calls "ascending significance", meaning that the first one is the weakest and the last one is the strongest. Here are the first two, the weakest being first: Telegraphing, and the Dangling Cause.

Click to see bigger and for easier reading.

I will post the next two ways in my nest post.

Now this may all seem incredibly obvious to many of you. Probably most of the drawing things I talk about here seem obvious too. But I find that a lot of knowledge about these things sounds really simple...and they're easy to dismiss as obvious and you think you know them.

But, as a writer or an artist, when you're staring at the blank page, you tend to panic and forget the simple things. That's why I drill them into my head over and over I will remember them when I need them.

I wish I had more time to write about these things in depth and post more often, but things are crazy (as always) and I can only do a little bit at a time. Someday (when I am in prison for copyright infringement, maybe) I will post more and do a better job of it.

Sunday, July 23, 2006 the Future!

Allow me to rephrase and reapproach what I was trying to say awhile ago with my post on "Pirates 2". I suspect I didn't flesh it out enough to make myself clear, and perhaps using "Pirates 2" as an example lead to me being a bit vague because I didn't want to cite specific examples from the movie which would be spoilers.

Anyway, let me first say that I have always tried to avoid reprinting material from books that are in print - I don't want to rip off some writer trying to make a living. But I'm going to do it anyway and tell myself that I am plugging the book and helping it sell more copies. This is from "Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach" by Paul Gulino.

Basically, the whole book is about a subject that, to me, is a very big key to making movies work. All movies don't have to involve this technique but it is very useful in keeping your audience involved with your story and characters.

The best quote in the book is, ironically, from another book called "Aspects of the Novel" by E. M. Forster and it concerns the root nature of story:

"It has only one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next. And conversely it can have only one fault: that of making the audience not want to know what happens next."

You want to focus your audience on the future: what's going to happen next? If they don't care what happens next why should they even stay in the theatre? Another writer called this "The Bathroom Test": we all know those giant sodas they sell at the movies. If you drank one during the trailers and then sat through a movie, is the movie compelling enough to keep you from going to the bathroom in the middle? Did the filmmaker create enough questions about the future of the story to keep you riveted to your seat?

Many good movies pose a question early in the movie that requires an answer.

This does two things: if the question is compelling you will stick around to learn the answer (and hopefully the answer will be satisfying). Also it creates a framework. The movie will not be over until this question is answered.

This is important. The audience craves a framework for the movie (in my opinion). Even before you go to a movie, the ad campaign for the movie has created a certain expectation for the movie. Some people complain that movie ads give away too much up front. This is true, but on the other hand, I don't think those mysterious "teaser" campaigns work well either. If I'm commiting 2 hours of my life and paying $10 to buy a product (in this case, a movie) I want to have a good idea of what I'm getting beforehand. I don't want to think I'm getting a comedy and get a drama instead. Or go see a Western and then halfway through it turns into a sci-fi adventure. That's okay if I knew about it up front, but if you feel like you got the old bait-and-switch and the movie turned out to be something other than what you expected...well, that's kind of a letdown.

Like I said, movies are a product like anything else. It's like buying a soda. Say you were really in the mood for a Coke on a hot day and bought a Coke can out of a vending machine. But when you opened the Coke and took a big turned out to be Sprite in a Coke can. Even though you may love Sprite, when you want a Coke you want a Coke, right?

This probably sounds very commercial and crass to many of you but I happen to like popular movies, when they're done well, which we can all agree is not nearly often enough. Don't get me wrong, I watch a ton of independant movies as well but I find them to be, in general, just as tedious and boring as popular films, if not more so. Just because they were made for less money and are trying to be more cereberal than popular movies doesn't make them better. I believe films have one goal above all other: to entertain. I like a movie that can uplift me as much as anyone, but I've never seen a movie that uplifted me without entertaining me first. A true artist isn't afraid to entertain you. Only snobs think that entertaining people is beneath them.

Anyway, that was a bit of a left turn there........for those of you still with me what I was trying to say is that people want to have a framework. They want to know when the movie is going to be over, and many movies will pose a question up front. The audience knows that the movie won't be over until that question is defintively answered. And that gives the ending a more satisfying weight, becasue we've been anticipating the answer for a while and it doesn't just come out of nowhere and blindside us. From the very beginning it was a part of the fabric of the movie.

And again, this is something that I feel both Pirates movies do very well and it makes the storytelling work well. There are many questions being setup with each character and it works well on many levels. Off the top of my head, here's one example: near the beginning of the first movie, Jack points a gun at Will and tells him "this shot is not meant for you".

That creates a very interesting question: who is the shot meant for? And why? Will Jack ever get to shoot it at the correct recipient? And what will happen when he does?

And you know that the movie won't be over until we know the answer to that question. And when it happens, it's so much satisfying than if we didn't hear this setup. If we didn't have this setup, then it would just be another gun being fired in a movie. It would have no weight.

And think about if that gun had never been fired in the movie. How unsatisfying would that have been? That's the thing about creating anticipation: you have to deliver on it in a satisfying way.

Anyway, in his book Mr. Gulino talks about four ways to create an anticipation of the future in your audience. I'll talk about them in my next posts.

Which is funny, because even though I didn't mean to, I'm telling you about the future and (just maybe) creating an anticipation of my next posts!

But probably not.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Some Bill

Things are crazy and I don't have much time to post right now. So here's a couple of scans of Bill Peet boards that I xeroxed directly from the originals - Vance Gerry owned them and he was nice enough to bring them to work and let me color copy them.

This was a Christmas card that the Peets sent out one year.

Vance had this one framed - I xeroxed it, frame and all.

Bill's simplicity adds to the power of the drawings. Many artists are afraid of simplicity because it can expose all of your weaknesses.

Most board artists concern themselves only with putting over the action and the attitudes - they are content to put over what is happening. Bill could convey all that and suggest the mood as well - a difficult thing to do.

Click all to see bigger.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Cool Tip of the Week

Local radio station KCRW has a weekly radio show called "The Treatment" hosted by Elvis Mitchell. This podcast can be downloaded from itunes or you can get it from the station's official site.

The show contains interviews with some great filmmakers and are definitely worth checking out. A recent one featuring David Mamet is really informative. I was going to post some great quotes from it but i figured it would be better to send you straight to the source without me interpreting his thoughts for you.

To be honest I tend to listen to a few episodes and then I have to take a break for a while. Elvis Mitchell is a fascinating character in his own right and he has an interview style that drives me crazy after prolonged exposure. He reminds me of James Lipton from "The Actor's Studio" in that Elvis tends to ask questions that come off as pompous and tedious. It seems to me that he likes to hear himself speak and he likes his questions to sound very high-brow and intellectual, even when discussing things like the Roger Corman movie "Grand Theft Auto" with Ron Howard. Frequently, when Elvis asks a question, I can't even tell what the hell he's asking, or if he's even posing a question. It seems to me that many of his questions are actually statements. He uses the word "specificity" so often that it should be a drinking game. And I think he's using the word incorrectly most of the time.

But, as the recent Ron Howard interview points out, Elvis does have a way of asking questions about film that no other journalists do. Elvis doesn't ask about on-set gossip or gush over his guests too much. He lets them talk about whatever they want and he has that rare ability to actually ask the logical follow-up question that journalists never seem to have anymore. And as a result he occasionally gets them to say insightful stuff about acting and making movies. And it's all free! So check it out and let me know what you think (start with the Mamet, I'm telling you).

If anyone else knows about a cool podcast, let us know (other than the ultra-cool Animation Podcast. If you haven't listened to Burny's interview yet, shame on you).

UPDATE: Dan pointed out that itunes doesn't have all of the podcasts and the Mamet one is missing. For all of the past shows, check out this page and scroll down to find Mamet. Click on the Mamet result to get options of listening to the interview in several formats.

I'm not sure why itunes removed the archived shows; the best way to find them all is to visit and search for "The Treatment". Then you can find a page that has all of the interviews; however, I was unable to cut and paste a link to that page. Sorry about the confusion! If you subscribe to the podcast through itunes you'll never miss another one.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Another Technique for Approaching Characters

Ha! I am surprised at what an interesting reaction I am getting to my recent insignificant posts. I am surprised to find how many people think I'm crazy for liking "Pirates 2" and "Entourage" as well! Ah well, I would rather hear the opinions of someone who has a different one than mine anyday, so hopefully people will find it interesting to read my wacky thoughts.

In any case, here's another small observation about "Entourage" that I think is an interesting storytelling technique.

Of the four main characters, two are more "realistic" or "empathetic" types and two are more "cartoony" or "stereotypical". What I mean is, Vincent and Eric are pretty "straight" characters. They deal with the kind of things we all deal with (particualrly Eric, he carries our regular-guy point-of-view on a strange situation: the world of Hollywood, actors and agents). So we empathize with him and feel for him. Most of the emotion we feel from the show comes from realting to how these two are feeling and what they're going through. They're relateable.

Then there are the two "cartoony" characters, Johnny and Turtle. They are harder to relate to but tons of fun to watch. They have problems that they cause for themselves by doing things we all know won't turn out well. They make impulsive, stupid decisions based on their own insecurities and inexperience. C'mon, what doesn't sound entertaining about that? They balance the pathos of the other two characters and make sure the show doesn't become maudlin. Whenever the show gets serious they're there to lighten things up.

Johnny, in particular, is such a fascinating character. He's amazingly caricatured and yet we all know people like him. He's constantly trying to keep up a macho facade and yet the most sensitive of all the characters. He's a mediocre has-been actor living off the success of his younger brother yet unable to face the truth of the situation. He has to rationalize everything to himself constantly so his fragile ego doesn't fall apart. He's truly a tragic figure and fascinating to watch. Kevin Dillon has to have the best role on television.

"Seinfeld" followed a similar pattern, I think. Jerry and Elaine had very relatable problems. Caricatured, yes, but everyone could identify with the kind of uncomfortable and uncharted social situations they always struggled with. Whereas George and, to a greater extent, Kramer dealt with cartoony problems and situations that were funnier and less relateable.

It's a balance that works well. Any story or group of characters that can cover the emotional side of things and the humorous side are going to work well. We crave both things in our stories. And it's hard to cover all the shades of emotion and all the wide range of humorous situations with the same characters so it's better to have well-defined categories and have a set for each type of storytelling.

And Ari Gold on "Entourage"? He's hard to classify. He's such an outrageous character that it's hard to feel emotional about him. If anyone other than Jeremy Piven played him I don't think he would be as great a character. But Piven does such a great job at making Ari's most desperate actions seem understandable. He's a character that can make you laugh, and yet while you're laughing you feel really sad for him. So maybe he's that rare instane where he covers both the empathetic and the cartoony side as well. So maybe it's Jeremy Piven who has the best role on television.

Or maybe it's just been a long day and I'm rambling. Anyway, just my opinion...feel free to tell me if you think I'm full of beans.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Good News, Bad News...

Here's another post, in a similar vein to the last one. Another idea about how to structure a story to keep the audience involved.

I just finished watching the second season of "Entourage" on DVD. Since I don't have HBO now I have to wait for season three to come out on DVD. Bummer.

Anyway, as you watch the show you see a familiar pattern to the storytelling emerge. A simple trick that gives you a great way to structure any story and keeps the audience involved and guessing what will happen next.

Basically, you give your character a goal that they want very much. They struggle to get that goal and you get a lot of great storytelling and character out of how they go about trying to reach their goal.

Finally, they succeed and reach their goal. For a brief moment it seems like the answer to all their prayers. Everything is great!

Then a new wrinkle develops. Now the "best thing that could have happened" turns out to be a curse in disguise. The character wishes he had never gotten what he wanted in the first place. He tries to get out of it. More great storytelling and character oppourtunities as we watch him try to finagle his way out of what the thought he always wanted.

Then another new wrinkle develops. It turns out that there is another new dimension to this problem and that it will all turn out to be a good thing. Just when our hero was finally extricated from the situation, something else came into play and now his original goal is what he wants again. Now he has to get back into a situation that he was trying to get out of before!

The easiest way to explain it is to approach your story by asking: what's the best thing that could happen to my protagonist? How could that turn out to be the worst thing?

It helps create a story that has the feel of a roller coaster. And we like to see heroes pushed to the limits of happiness and despair, so this is a good way to find where those areas lie for your hero. Nobody wants to follow a story where the hero is moderately satisfied all the time. We want to see the extremes of their emotions - good and bad.

"Entourage" adds another great dimension to this technique. There are basically five main characters on the show. They all have different desires and goals. So when one of them gets what they wants, another one is usually losing what they wanted to get. It never happens that everybody is happy at once; when two people are happy then the other three are miserable. This makes for great drama. As one person comes to a decision or intiates an action you instantly know how all the others will react and you are further compelled into the drama as you wait to see how it will all unfold. A great thing to do when telling a story.

Sounds simple. Easy to say, hard to do, but it sure works!

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Pirates and Curveballs

The release of the second "Pirates of the Carribean" movie reminds me of a quote I heard on the DVD of the first movie. Jerry Bruckheimer was talking about the making of the movie and he made an offhand comment that went something like:

"Just keep throwin' 'em curveballs, that's all you gotta do".

Which is a really sharp observation. One of the best ways to structure your story is to find a way to constantly surprise your audience by doing the unexpected (which is what Jerry was saying). Hey, if your audience can figure out where the story is going, why do they need to pay you $10 so they can see your movie? They can stay home and imagine their own movie for nothing, so you have to give them something better than that. You have to find a way to surprise them and give them something that they can't see coming. And it has to be doens't count to just reveal that everything was a dream in the end. Or to suddenly have a romantic comedy turn into an action adventure movie for the last five minutes. The surprises have to feel like they come naturally from the story and characters, and yet the audience can't see them coming, or else they lose the element of surprise. Trying to do this well is hard work indeed.

Another thing that both the original and sequel do well is another basic key to making movies work. It's so simple really, that it's probably obvious to everyone already, but basically it's creating an anticipation about where the story is going.

You want the audience to be drawn in and be constantly wondering what is going to happen next. This may sound stunningly obvious but many movies fail to do this well. You want to be constantly creating questions in your audience's head about what will happen next. How will the characters get out of this jam? How will they reach their goal? How will they react when they find out their lover has died? Stuff like that. Your audience will only remained glued to their seat to the extent that they need to know what happens next. You need to create a situation where they care about the characters enough and the situation is compelling enough that they need to know what will happen next. And as you answer one question along the way, another question arises that needs to be answered. So the audience always has a clear question in their mind that they are wondering about, on the edge of their seat because they can't wait to find out the answer.

"Pirates 2" did this well: the constant posing of questions (some big, some small) to help pull you through the movie. It gives you a sense of where the movie is going: the movie won't be over until these questions are resolved. And it gives your audience that eagerness, that anticipation to wonder when they'll get their answers. And it gives them a sense of satisfaction when the questions are resolved in a satisfactory way. Ever leave a theatre feeling "unsatisfied"? Probably because the film didn't answer all the questions that it posed, or answered them in a way that didn't feel quite right.

I don't watch "Lost", but my sense is that they use this technique all the time: plant a question in the audience's mind, then answer it. But the answer leads to another question, which then gets answered, which leads to another question...

Personally, I can't take that kind of thing in TV form, because there's no end in sight. If the show goes on for 15 years, then you're never going to get a definitive answer until 15 years from now. And what if it's an unsatisfying resolution? Then you invested 15 years in a disappointment! At least with a movie, you've only wasted like 4 hours at the most.

I know, the journey is the thing and all.....I just can't get into "Lost". In any case...

On a very basic level, a filmmaker's job is to generate interest in the mind of his audience. Without that you have nothing else to build on. If they're not interested, nothing you throw at them will have any impact.

If you're one of the 3 people left in America who didn't see "Pirates 2" yet, stay through the end credits when you go. There's more after the credits.

Just like there was in the first movie. If you haven't seen what comes after the credits in the first movie, go take a look at it on DVD, because it explains something that's potentially confusing in the new one.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

A Couple of Quickies

Things have been ultra crazy at work so my posts have been few and far between lately. Hopefully things will get better nest week. Here are a couple more cool little bits from the Famous Artists Course to kick-start your brain some more. Click to see bigger.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Painting A Window

Back when I first started this blog I talked about the value of "randomness" - throwing yourself a curveball, doing things differently than you usually do. The Disney artist T. Hee said you should drive to work a different way every day so you would see something new and kick-start your brain.

Well, here's a completely random page to kick-start your brain. It's from the "Famous Artists Course" and it deals with a unique challenge for every artist: how do you "draw" something that is invisible?

It ends with very good advice: add character to everything you draw. Don't just draw a window, tell a story about the person that lives on the other side. This is what makes an illustration come to life and involve the viewer. It can make the difference between a story sketch that just does the job and one that has an added touch that makes the world of an animated film suddenly seem like a real place, which can have an amazing impact on how involved an audience is with your characters and your story.

Click to see bigger and read all the text.

I was surprised how much of the Famous Artists Course was concerned with how to paint different textures. I never knew much about painting and it makes sense that painting different textures would be a major concern for a painter. Just like this bit about painting a window pane, I can see how realisticly portrayed textures in an illustration would make the picture seem more real and involve the viewer's emotions more in the story being told.