Monday, September 24, 2007

Lost and Found

I was cleaning out my office at home over the weekend and I found a piece of animation art that I forgot I even had. Under some books and papers that haven't been moved in about three years I found the Ken Anderson drawing from "Jungle Book", still wrapped in the cellophane bag it was shiiped in. I believe I bought it off ebay.
I call finding a forgotten piece of animation art and posting it on your blog "pulling a Jenny" because somehow Jenny Lerew manages to do this all the time. She always posts scads of awesome artwork that she seems to find everywhere in her house. If that's what she has lying around imagine what must be hanging on her walls! I'm trying to get her to invite me over sometime so I can check beneath the couch cushions for a lost Ward Kimball drawing or two*.

I actually have a few pieces by Ken. Nothing fancy, but they're all fun little drawings. He must have handed out drawings quite frequently because his stuff is very easy to find and always quite reasonably priced.

*Just kidding, Jenny.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

More Free Muybridge (and a little more free advice)

More free hig-res Muybridge scans to help students (and everybody else that's interested in studying the real deal). Click to see them real big.

Just to give the "other side" a fair shake, here are two great quotes that temper everything I've been saying about originality. (Both are paraphrased as best as I can remember them):

A cliche is a cliche because it works - George Lucas

Originality often leads to obscurity - Vance Gerry

Which brings up a good point. One of the hardest parts of being a student (for me) was the constant stream of advice from every quarter. Everybody would look at my character designs, or layouts, or animation scenes and everybody had a different thought about how each could be improved. After listening to everybody for a while I felt like my head was going to explode. I was trying to take all of that advice and implement all of it because it was coming from teachers and fellow students that I admired. But I could never take all of it because what one person said would totally contradict what another said.

It's worth remembering that a big part of being a student is that it's normal to feel like your brain is a shot glass and the world is suddenly trying to pour a gallon of information into it. It's going to be an overwhelming experience no matter what so just do your best to remember what you can and write down what doesn't make sense so you can puzzle it out later. Remember that it's up to you to accept what advice makes sense to you and disregard what doesn't feel right to you.

And take comfort in the fact that you never really learn anything until you figure it out for yourself. People can tell you something every day for ten years but it will never really mean anything to you until you make just the right amount of mistakes and suddenly you think "Hey, I get it now!". All of a sudden that thing everybody's been saying makes sense.

There are many versions all over the web of Ollie Johnston's notes that were collected over the years (there's a pdf version here). Just type "Ollie Johnston notes" into Yahoo or Google and you'll find them all over the place.

If there's one piece of advice on the list that's worth a million bucks it's this one:

Concentrate on drawing clearly, not cleanly.

If I had a nickel for every time I've told myself that, I'd be a billionaire. If I could get myself to really learn it I would be happier than any billionaire, that's for sure.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

More on "Drawing is Organizing"

As I said before, a big part of drawing is organizing and juggling all of the elements that make up your picture into a composition that has good design and clearly communicates your idea.

Stephen Worth posted some great stuff from the Famous Artists Course on the ASIFA-Hollywood Animation Archive back in November. There's a Part One and a Part Two all about composing pictures and it really helps shine a light on the whole idea of organizing your ideas. Give it a look.

I own the Famous Artists Course but my version is (I think) a bit older than the version that Stephen is posting. Stephen's version is much better laid out and explained than the comparable sections of my course. It's really great stuff, just like everything else posted over there, so go have a look!

If you're ever looking to buy the Famous Artists Course and you're wondering which version to buy, all I can tell you is that my version came with four black binders and it appears that Stephen's is three volumes with a different color on each binder. Also be warned that here is a Famous Artist Cartoon Course, which is different. You can get either one of these series from ebay or a used book dealer, but it's sort of a gamble because you never know which version you'll get. Lastly, be aware that the Famous Artists Course is still around and they offer a contemporary course but it's really expensive and I have no idea what kind of artists are running the course these days.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

A Little More Advice for Students

Okay, just one more thing for you students out there and then I'll move on. At the risk of repeating myself ad naseum I would like to encourage students to do their best to be original when creating their films. When you're a student it can seem like a scary idea to be original. Being original can seem risky and frightening if you feel like you don't have any idea what you're doing. It can seem tempting to use something you've seen before - something that you know works already - to hedge against falling completely on your face with an untested original idea that people may not like. It might seem safer to just copy a character design or try a variation on an idea that we've all seen before.

Relying on a cliché can be comforting because you're building on something that's a known quantity. It can be easy to rationalize as well. After all, you say you want to show off your skills as an animator - not as a character designer - so why not just draw characters that are only slight variations on what we've all seen before? Why waste timing searching around for a fresh design when you really want to spend your time focusing on animating?

Well, because re-using an old design will inevitably cause you to fall into the same expressions and acting patterns as whoever animated it the first time - it's unavoidable. You won't be able to divorce your mind from the performance you've already associated with that design. You won't invent a new personality because that would be impossible - your mind already perceives that design as having a personality assigned to it. Any audience that sees it will have a hard time forgetting the personality they already know and accepting whatever new character you're trying to sell. It's an uphill battle and it's pointless.

So what if your dalmatian design isn't quite as good as Pongo? The world already has enough good Pongo drawings. Bring something new into the world that only you can do. A flawed piece that has originality is worth a thousand perfect yet lifeless copies.

One last time, I will repeat myself and say that it's all well and good to study animation and learn from what other people have brought to the art, but please please please study real life for inspiration and do your utmost to infuse the world of animation with all of the wonder, weirdness and personality of the real world.

True life is always wackier than anything we can create. If you made a student film about a rich old woman who dies and leaves all of her money to her pet dog, people would roll their eyes at what a silly and clichéd idea, and yet, it happened recently in real life.

I haven't seen "King of Kong" but I love this trailer because it's a movie about real people that look like real great personality types. Based on the trailer it appears to feature a guy who oozes arrogance because he's held the high score record on "Donkey Kong" for twenty years and has parlayed that into a Barbeque sauce empire. Again, if you created that character people would think he was too cartoony to be believed. Then he's set in conflict against a guy that appears to have failed at too many things to count and has decided that breaking the "Donkey Kong" high score is his holy grail, the accomplishment that will bring meaning to his life and that failing in this goal may bring him to utter ruination.

Now I don't know how the movie really portrays these guys and I don't know what these people are actually like in real life. Are they really that caricatured? Does the arrogant guy really answer his phone that way? I don't know, but if you were animating a vain character and you had a scene of him tossing his head back to fluff his hair, people would roll their eyes and say "that's such a cliché. Nobody really does that". And yet that guy did that very thing in the movie trailer! Did you see that?!?! Could this guy really exist? Does he really that think that being good at "Donkey Kong" makes him that much better than anyone else? Did he really use the word "brutality" to describe "Donkey Kong"? Are we still talking about the game with the plumber who jumps over barrels? Does he really talk about himself in the third person?

Seriously, nobody could write this stuff. I just love that he describes "Donkey Kong" as "brutality" because it shows how amazing he thinks he is for beating it. His choice of words reveals a lot about his character.

The point is that reality is way wackier than any cartoon ever was, and way better. I get more entertainment out of watching people in public than any sitcom. Get your ideas and inspiration from real life, not from cartoons. The guys that made the old cartoons that you love didn't sit around watching animation all day because that wasn't possible back then. They studied real people because they knew that that was the best place to get ideas.

I once talked to a student who was telling me about the time he had to animate a walk cycle for his animation class. No character design was given so he told me that he decided to use "Mowgli" from "The Jungle Book". He told me he wasn't sure how Mowgli would walk so he just copied the "Shaggy" walk cycle from "Scooby-Doo".

Good grief, what more can I say to convince you that animation needs to look outside itself for fresh ideas?

I always notice that there are people who draw great "running" and "walking" poses for storyboarding. There are a couple of stereotypical poses that everybody uses to say "this character is walking" or "this character is running". Crack open any cartoon book and you'll see them.

I always feel like a complete boob because I can't bust out those easy walk and run poses. Part of it is that I can't stand to use those stereotypical poses. They work really well, so I should, but I can't bring myself to because I always feel like every drawing should describe the personality of the character, as well as their mood at the moment. Every person in the world has a different walk that describes their personality. You can tell by a person's walk what kind of mood they're in, how tired they are, what age they are...people walk differently on their way into work than they do when they're heading outside to get some lunch and different still when they're heading home. People run differently to catch the ice cream truck than they do when they're running towards their long-lost love and differently still when there's a murderer chasing them.

So a lot of the time my walking and running drawings look kind of dopey. They're not always successful, and they probably would be if I just repeated the same stock poses every time. But I'd rather be original and end up with a crummy drawing once in a while. I hope you'll take the same risk.

Whenever I have to board out a run or a walk I pull out the Muybridge photos. I still like looking at them because they help me picture a walk in three dimensions. You never end up drawing a walk or a run from the side. A lot of the time it's from a dramatic angle - like the camera is down low or high up and the character is coming towards camera or going away. That's when Muybridge is helpful because your mind can deal with adding the perspective as well as the mood and personality and the photos can be your reference for where the limbs will be in space in relation to one another.

If you don't have any books with the Muybridge photos, has a great selection of different editions to choose from.

I bought an edition of the Muybridge photos that can be used as royalty-free clip art and it came with a CD of high quality jpegs. So here's a little taste of reality that you can use for inspiration next time you need some reference. There's a lot more to share so I'll post more soon. Also there's a version with animals I want to get so I'll post some of those someday too.

This are very high-res so click on them to see them big.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Advice for Students

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!