As a new school year starts, animation students across the world are returning to start work and make another personal film. I tried to write a post last year and now I am trying again to give some advice to help in this endeavor.
(Having gone to CalArts, I can only speak to what applies there. Some of my advice is going to fly in the face of what other schools are actually requiring you to do, so disregard my advice when it conflicts with the cirucullum of your school).
It's a daunting task to be responsible for creating and executing your own film. There are few limitations and very little guidance as to how to proceed and what kins of subject matter to tackle. When I was at CalArts and making my own films, I wanted to express something about the world and about life that would mean something to people, but the truth is that I was too young to really know much about life and too inexperienced to know how to express what I wanted to say. Back then it seemed like such an overwhelming task to undertake making my own film, and it is. Back then I would have given anything to skip the whole process of making my own film and jump right to the part where I get a job in "the business". When I was a student I worried so much about the future and whether I would ever be able to make a living in animation that I didn't enjoy or appreciate the amazing opportunity of actually creating my own personal film. And I bet every animation veteran ends up thinking the same thing I do: man, I would do anything to have that chance again, knowing what I know now!
(The truth is that the chance to make your own film never disappears. Nowadays technology makes it possible for anyone to make their own film and it gets easier (and cheaper) every day. So anyone that wishes for that chance need only set aside enough time and make up their mind to actually do it. It's just that you may never get another chance to really dedicate your whole existence to creating something that's your very own. I'm not trying to add more pressure to an already daunting task, I'm just reminding you to try and actually enjoy the experience at some point, because it is a great opportunity.)
So what I'm trying to do here is to say what I wish someone would have told me back when I was trying to figure out what to do for my own personal film. And I hate to pile more doubt and second-guessing onto what is already an onerous decision, so forgive me if I muddy the waters for you. The most important part of the decision is to pick something that will sustain your interest and passion long enough for you to finish the damn thing. That means that you shouldn't do what you think others will think is cool, or funny, or clever, or intellectual, you ought to do what you actually find interesting, engaging and inspiring enough to work on 24 hours a day for eight months or so.
The biggest problem I seem to see is students who try to over-reach in terms of complexity and/or polish. By that I mean that many students try to tackle a film that is simply too long for them to finish by themselves or spend too much of their energies trying to take their film to a state of completion that is totally inappropriate for a student film.
Many students seem to want to make some sort of grand, epic statement and so they try to make a longer film with a lot of scale and heft to it. Every medium has it's own inherent strengths and weaknesses and a short student film is not the best form to make an epic sweeping drama. The most successful student films of all time are, for the most part, short and simple. The best student films, to me, have always been character studies, quiet and well-observed, short on out-loud laughs but long on charm. Nobody ever walked out of a student film festival saying "wow, that super-slick one that went on forever was awesome". They always talk about the one that surprised them and had a great character in it or the one that had an unexpected quiet sweetness and charm to it.
Audiences always, always, always respond strongly to entertainment that holds a mirror up to the human condition. If you can show people a glimmer of truth about themselves they will enjoy it and remember it for a long time. This sounds weighty and pompous but it's not meant to be: the reason people love the cartoons where Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck work against each other because we all know people just like both of them, and depending on the time and circumstances we have all been exactly like Bugs and exactly like Daffy. Bugs is who we wish we were and Daffy is who we end up being most of the time. The same thing is true of all entertainment that seems to speak to a wide audience: Charlie Chaplin's films were all based on great insights into how people work and so was "Seinfeld" as is Spongebob, as is "Superbad". Trust me, there's nothing that connects to an audience like seeing ourselves up on screen. It's enough just to show us something about the way we are, and if you can make us laugh at ourselves, you will win a place in our hearts as well. You don't have to be serious and wise to make a statement about people and what makes them tick; we are all people and we all know plenty of people. What's something that you've noticed about people that only you could express?
Everyone has different tastes, but to me, real humor and comedy come from well-made observations about who we are, not from "funny" lines or "wacky" characters. If you've ever heard Jerry Seinfeld's routines about what makes us tick, he can get five minutes of comedy out of describing how we react to finding a hair stuck to the wall of the shower while we're bathing. He describes what goes through our mind and how we react, and yet it's still somehow a revelation to us, even though we've been through it ourselves. Because he took the time to stop and think about something that no one else really gave a second thought to, and even better, he articulated something that we never could have put into words, we laugh and discover ourselves anew. That's magical to me, and that's what I think is funny. But then again, there are people who think it's funny (and will actually pay to see) the comedian Gallager smash a watermelon, so everyone has a different sense of what is humorous and entertaining.
In any case my suggestion is to focus on something real, and true, something that you actually believe. Don't try to make a grandiose statement but a small one. Better yet, don't try to make a statement at all, but try to find something that you think is entertaining. Don't think about what's funny or going to get a laugh, just try to be entertaining for a minute or two, that's enough of a challenge for anyone. Be sincere and simple, that always works.
Technology makes it easier and easier to add color to your film, and it does seem like a certain segment of your viewing audience will see color and be fooled into thinking that your film is automatically good because it's polished. But there are so many amazingly great classic CalArts shorts that are in black and white that it's apparent that substance will always be more important than appearance. You always have a limited amount of time and energy to put into any project and we tend to always think we can do more than we can. Put your energy into making a good movie and if you have time left over (which rarely happens) go back and fix the parts of your film that could be better. Don't waste time cleaning up and putting color into your scenes, because, let's face it, you're probably not aiming for a job that involves cleaning up drawings or adding color to anything, so don't show people that you're good at it or else that may be what people end up hiring you to do. It's seductive to add color and polish to a project that may not quite be up to snuff but we've all made the mistake of cleaning up a drawing and adding color to it to "fix" it when we knew the pose and expression weren't quite right and no amount of polish will save a drawing if it doesn't succeed at the basic core level. It's better to have a scribbly, rough drawing that is clear than a polished, finished one that is not clear. If you end up with a film that you know is flawed, delve back in and do what you can to fix the concept. Don't plow ahead into cleaning it up and coloring it.
If you're going to over-reach, don't do it by trying to make a ten minute film all in color. Keep your film short but push yourself to tackle something you don't know how to do yet. If you're good at people, add a four-legged animal or a bird to a couple of scenes, if appropriate. If you're good at animating but poor at layout, challenge yourself to push the layout aspects of your film. If you're a character animator try a scene of some sort of effects animation.
The most important thing is to be true to yourself. Pick something to do that you really like. If you find it entertaining and worth your time to do, then an audience will find it that way too. Really be honest with yourself and analyze why you are picked your idea before you begin working on your film. Are you trying to make a film that you think other people will be impressed with, or that you think other people will like? Is your film really something that you would enjoy sitting through if you hadn't made it? Are you trying too hard to be "arty" or "clever" or "weird" or "non-commercial" just because your fellow students seem to think it's more cool to make that kind of film? Some film makers like to make strange and inaccessible films because it can insulate you from criticism. If nobody understands your film then they can't very well critique it. And there are many people who really do have a different sensibility and do make films that are unique and they work because the film maker's sincerity comes through. But there are also many people who try to be "quirky" and it doesn't feel very sincere, it just feels forced. Some people really like offbeat and quirky movies and some people really like mainstream movies. Be honest about what you really like and make a film that you would actually like to see because if you would like to see it then others will as well. The sincerity or insincerity of a film maker always comes through in his or her work and a flawed project with a ton of sincerity always trumps a slick project without any sincerity at all.
Michael Bay movies make a lot more money than Woody Allen movies but in fifty years nobody is going to be sitting around watching "Armageddon" but they just might still be watching "Annie Hall".
Lastly, don't let this advice make you more nervous or intimidated by your task because students are supposed to still be learning. All of the film festivals that pick up student films for showing to the public and all the awards that have been created for student films only add more pressure and competition to an undertaking that is supposed to be all about learning, not producing the "perfect" student film as a finished piece. Put all of that stuff out of your head. As a student you are supposed to be experimenting and trying things. Some people will always play to their strengths and that might always lead to success but those people will never grow as an artist. You will actually get a lot more out of the process for yourself if you push yourself to try something new. You could try relying on your strengths for most of your film but try adding a new wrinkle that pushes your abilities a bit. The whole point of being a student is to stretch and grow and learn.....and fail. Failure is part of everything and an artistic life is going to be full of failure. Failure is the best way to learn so don't be afraid of it. Becoming afraid is failing before you even tried. If you get nothing else out of school, learning how to fail and then pick yourself back up again is a great thing to learn and it will serve you very well in everything you do in life.
When I was at CalArts Glen Keane handed out this paper describing what he thought made a movie work for an audience.
In any case this is a difficult subject to tackle and I hope I've helped someone somewhere in their quest to navigate these difficult waters. If none of my advice rings true to you then don't spend another minute trying to puzzle it out, just move on and do your thing. Best of luck to all of you students and best wishes for a happy and productive school year.
If any other former students feel moved to offer advice based on what they wish they had known back then please feel free to leave a comment dispensing that wisdom!