Saturday, October 20, 2007

Alex Toth Critiques

I don't know if everyone else has already seen these, but I recently stumbled upon these pages. If the link doesn't work, simply use Google or Yahoo and type in "Toth critiques" and you'll find them scattered all over the web, at various sizes and resolutions - some are harder to read than others. They are comic pages drawn by Steve Rude which were critiqued by Alex Toth. Alex is well-known for being brutally honest and these critiques are no exception, but his analysis is really spot-on and all of his suggestions are attempts to clarify the story and make it more dynamic and interesting to the reader.

Again, I can't help but be reminded that a lot of what makes a drawing succeed or fail is how well it is organized. All of the elements in a picture have to be arranged well in order to put over the idea to the viewer. In writing about the first panel Toth is listing the elements in the frame and after the word camel he adds parantheses with an exclamation point and a question mark (!?) which I take to mean that, due to the way the panel is organized, you can't really tell that it's supposed to be a camel. The way the camel is lying down, the way the stuff on the camel's back breaks up his shape and confuses his silhouette, and the way the palm tree seems to be growing out of his neck all make it difficult to tell what the camel is supposed to be without extra work from the viewer. It's obvious that Steve Rude is a fine draftsman but many of the complaints that Toth lists are areas where Rude's organization and composition have lead to confusion.

No matter what, Toth's writing is amusing to read because he's so relentless in his criticism and becomes sarcastic quite often. How lucky we all are that the internet has given us a place to see and learn from things like this. Very few of us would have ever gotten a chance to have our work critiqued by Toth in real life, and even if we did, his criticisms might have hurt our artistic egos so much that we might not have learned as much as we could have.

There's so much great advice here, tossed off - I love how he questions when the last time was that Rude lifted a heavy box, because his poses don't feel very convincing. The last page is full of admonitions about developing, learning and being hard on yourself that every artist should heed. In any case, it's a treasure trove of stuff that makes one wish that Toth had left us with more documents like this. Check it out and enjoy.

Juan Pablo pointed out in the comments that Mr. Toth did, indeed, leave us more documents like this, although it's him criticizing his own work instead of that of others, so it's slightly less brutal. If you go to and click on "Annotated Toth" you'll be able to click on many stories by Toth with notes along the side. Once you open up the first page of a story, click on the page to step through the rest of the story. Toth isn't quite as venomous towards his own work but definitely have choice words for a few of the writers and colorists that have worked on his stuff. Anyway, it's great to peek into the mind of such a talented artist, and thanks again to juan for pointing out that these exist online.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Haunting a House

Now that it's October again, time for my yearly tradition: reposting this great page from the "Famous Artists Course" by Stevan Dohanos. In it, he talks through his thought process as he composes a picture of a house and adds elements in order to make it look spooky. If anyone is trying to draw a haunted house for Halloween, this will be especially helpful, but even if you're not it's worth a look because he talks through his method and how he approaches the problem of making the house look abandoned and creepy.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

More "Jungle Book" Artwork (and more on pacing)

Some more of the great artwork included on the new version of "The Jungle Book", this time from the Visual Development category.

I meant to add to my last post about editing in animated film a bit about texture as it relates to editing. As we all know, contrast is at the heart of any artistic discipline: if you want to make a color look really bright, you place it against dull colors; if you want a passage of music to feel really fast, you put it after a passage of music that is very slow, and if you want to animate a really strong "stretch" you put it after a very strong "squash".

So obviously the same thing applies to editing film: to make a section of a film feel frenetic, exciting and fast-paced you need to also have areas of your film that move slower and more restfully. A film that is all fast paced rapidly cut action will dull the senses of the audience until nothing has any meaning.

Anyone that has seen a movie can tell you that the emotion of a film is what you remember about a film and what moves you to fall in love with a film. And everybody also knows that the emotion of a film only comes across in the quiet moments between characters where everything else falls away into the background. Rarely do Michael Bay movies have quiet moments and rarely do those movies have any emotional connection with the audience (nor are they meant to).

As a funny side note, it's interesting that trailers for mainstream movies don't really sell themselves by showing the quiet emotional moments. They show all the fun stuff in the trailers because that's what we all go to see. If they showed the heavy emotional moments we would think "Ugh, that movie is going to be a big downer. My life is depressing enough, no thanks, I'll pass".

So they show the fun stuff to trick us into going to see the thing. When "Toy Story 2" came out all the ads showed all the fun stuff: Woody finds some new pals! A crazy fun cowgirl sidekick! A goofy horse that loves to run around and play! A kindly old prospector toy who's never been out of his box! And another deluded Buzz Lightyear! All of your pals back for more fun!!!! Sign me up!

And then you get to the theater and, yes, TS2 delivered all that fun stuff and more. But what parts of the film do you really remember? What parts of the film really left an impression on you? Jesse's song where she explained how she had been left behind by the girl she loved. Woody's struggle between a future left behind by the boy he loves and a bid for loveless immortality behind glass.

Anyway, that's just a side note, as I real point is that editing is as much about contrast as any other art. Any good film uses contrast to create rhythm and texture as well as to create a meaning to the audience. A film that is all slow going tries the patience of the viewer until it lulls them into a dreary hypnosis. A film that is all fast action feels relentless and wears out the audience until they feel nothing. Just as any painting needs empty, blank areas for the eye to rest so does the "canvas" of a film.

Fear is as much a part of filmaking as any other art, although there is so much money on the line in the movie business that maybe the fear is amplified even more. Fear can make people do things that seem inexplicable. I've seen many, many people who have a huge fear of boring the audience (to be honest I've mostly seen it in executives, the people who are most aware of how much money is being spent along the way). This is, actually, a healthy fear to have but it leads people into thinking that the film has to keep moving at a fast clip lest anyone get the slightest bit disinterested. People seem to forget that a slow, emotional scene can be just as compelling as a fast one (and usually they are much more compelling). So this is another reason that sometimes at the eleventh hour of production on a film people will sit down with the editor and trim wherever there seems to be a little "fat". Out of a fear of boring the audience (I've never ever seen someone with a fear of moving too quickly and leaving the audience confused or unsatisfied, but that would make for a good balance).

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Jungle Book Documentary (and some musings on pacing in animated film)

I bought the new "Jungle Book" DVD yesterday and I was pleasantly surprised to find a documentary included in the bonus materials about the development of the film's story. It talks about Bill Peet's first written treatment for the movie and compares it with both the original book and the final version as overseen by Walt after Bill had left the studio. There's some great storyboards in the documentary that I've never seen before and more details about Peet's version than I've ever heard before.

Peet's original ending had Mowgli able to move within the world of the "Man Village" and the world of the jungle as well. That's interesting because I always think of the modern Disney films as having those kind of "have your cake and eat it too" endings - like Ariel being able to marry Price Eric and keep a relationship with her father as well, or Aladdin setting the Genie free and becoming a prince besides.

Some pictures of Bill Peet at work. Click to see all of these bigger.

This one (below) appears to be a Vance Gerry drawing. The rest all appear to be by Bill Peet.

One of the sections of the documentary shows a sequence Peet had in mind for the film. It begins with Bagheera and Mowgli up in a tree, with Col. Hathi (the elephant) below, threatening to kill Mowgli if he catches him. Then the two of them descend the tree and run into a rhino, who can smell Mowgli and threatens to kill Mowgli if he can catch him. The Rhino ends up chasing Bagheera and Mowgli into a tree. It seems like an odd sequence because it has a weird symmetry - the same things happen twice: they start and end in a tree and are threatened by two big animals inbetween. It would be great to read Peet's original treatment and see how he saw this part fitting in with the overall story.

One of the comments made by Walt during the making of the movie was that "fewer events (in the story) make more room for character", supposedly in regard to Peet having too many complicated events and too much expositionary dialogue. I never heard of Walt actually saying it that plainly but it's interesting because many of us have said this over the years recently at Disney, because on many of our recent films it always felt like the movie was moving at a breakneck pace from event to event and the movies would never slow down to let the movie breathe and showcase the personalities of the characters that populate our movies. "Jungle Book" is certainly the most leisurely-paced of the Disney movies made during Walt's life with the plot being basically a "road trip" - a journey from one place to another and episodes of meeting different characters along the way. To me there is nothing wrong with this approach - I've always felt that the first "false notes" that the story hits are at the point where the vultures are introduced and then the climax and defeat of Shere Kahn feels distinctly unsatisfying and underwheming. These parts of the movie were the ones that were cobbled together after Walt's death (supposedly Walt didn't think much of the real-life Beatles and I wonder what he would have thought about the idea of four vultures that look like the Beatles and yet sound more like a Barbershop quartet than the Beatles).

Anyway, in the modern Disney executive-driven era, we were always encouraged to make the pace of our movies faster, faster, faster in order to avoid boring the audience. One executive was (in)famous for yelling out "I'm going for popcorn!" in the middle of a story pitch if it seemed like the pace of the story was bogging down. Certainly it can be said that Disney movies made after Walt's death and before the arrival of the modern executive era suffered from a pace that was too slow and lacked a narrative drive, generally meandering from place to place without enough cohesive threads to hold the whole thing together. So I think the executives were trying to leave that kind of filmmaking behind and begin to create movies more akin to the live action films of the time, films like "Top Gun" that had a lot of adrenaline and energy along with a very fast pace.

After a few years of pushing the Disney films to go at a faster and faster pace, it just became habit. Nobody was ever surprised to hear an executive say "cut this part out, hurry this part along quicker" but many of us were tired of this policy because it obviously isn't appropriate to every situation. There are many types of moments in a film that need time to breathe or else they just won't work. It's hard to imagine Walt telling his story guys that they should hurry through "When You Wish Upon a Star", "April Showers" or "Baby Mine" or else the audience would get bored. Even many modern animated films prove this theory out. Think about Jesse's song in "Toy Story 2" and how effective it was. A film has to slow down and take it's time with certain moments for them to work, and in general all of the Pixar movies have much longer running times than their modern Disney counterparts and obviously audiences have found them much more rewarding and satisfying.

One thing you discover in animated filmmaking is how much of a difference these little pauses can make. At Disney we were always rushed along to make shorter films because every frame adds cost to the budget. Also, the way the films are made has become much different in the last ten years. Instead of working in the story room to work out the movie, much more of the filmmaking process now happens in the editing room because of the invention of digital editing. It's so much easier now to adjust, tweak and experiment with your story reels now in the editing room. As a result, both editors and directors end up watching the story reels over and over and over in editorial much more than they used to. This has an unintended consequence because the more they watch it the more they can become used to the pace of the movie and it starts to seem long to them. If you watch anything over and over and you know what's going to happen next, you become dulled to the rhythm of it and it starts to seem long and boring in all the slow spots. So I would say that modern directors and editors tend to get bored with the quieter parts and they start to trim frames off here and there to keep the pace moving.

After a while this has a cumulative effect and the film starts to feel rushed. I actually can't tell you how many films I saw at Disney that I thought worked really well, only to see the final version in the theater and think that the sincerity and the heart of the film suffered in the final product. A few frames here and there - as crazy as this sounds - makes a big, big difference. Sincerity lives in those few frames. If you don't let a heartfelt moment play out with the length and "air" that it needs it will start to feel forced and manipulative to the audience. And in the last minute panic that happens in making a movie sometimes people give into their fears that they might bore the audience for a moment and they tend to trim a few frames here and there because it doesn't seem like it will effect the film as a whole. By that point everyone involved in the making of the movie is so exhausted from watching the movie day in and day out for years that it's hard to have any perspective on the thing or any ability to look at it objectively. So it can be hard to tell what's working and why.

Anyway, that's just my two cents as a story person. Any director or editor or executive would have a different perspective, and I can only tell you what I've seen from my side of the fence.

For more great information on Ken Anderson and "The Jungle Book" see Will Finn's great post about the topic.