It's that time of year again, with many animation students returning to school or even attending an animation program for the first time. Last year I felt compelled to write some long-winded advice to help students, particularly those who are faced with the task of making their own student film, based on what I've learned since I was in that position myself and what I've seen work well (and not so well) over the years.
I will try to be more brief and succinct this time around. I don't know why I feel I need to write this post but I just wish someone would have given me some advice when I was in school to help me navigate those difficult waters. Actually, I did have several great teachers that gave me great advice back then, but like a lot of things we have to learn these lessons on our own; they don't make sense to us until they're learned though experience and no amount of rambling blog posting will help us learn it any quicker!
Over and over, I have seen the same thing repeated as far as success in student films: the ones that are all about character and personality always, always, always, generate the most enthusiasm and excitement from the audience. The ability to put across a unique and entertaining personality to an audience is a true talent. It doesn't even require the ability to draw well or animate slickly to pull this off; just some amount of observation, honesty and sincerity.
We all have known interesting people and we have all had life experiences that made an impression on us in some way. Everything I have ever created was based on a combination of these two things and I recommend it as a way of approaching your work. If your work has it's basis in observation of the people around you and real things that have happened to you, then it will have a weight to it and a reality that makes people think "yeah, I can relate to that", even if it takes place on a planet that's populated only with aliens who are blobs with one eye. All great films that speak to people are really about people and what makes them tick and explains why we do the things we do, because we are endlessly fascinated with ourselves and each other. For better or worse, people are still the most interesting and complex things ever invented for our amusement.
So if you've ever been fascinated by a person and something they've done or the way they've acted or behaved, think about that and how you might be able to get it into your work.
Not that everyone is interested in that sort of animation or that everyone's goal is to please an audience. You may not ever get to dedicate a year of your life to making your own film again, so make it what you want it to be. Don't try to "give them what they want", because the insincerity of that kind of thinking always comes through. Instead, as Andrew Stanton often says, make a film that you would want to see and chances are other people will want to see it too.
I just offer the above advice because I always like to watch little films about character that are very simple and entertaining, but I somehow didn't make that connection when I was at CalArts and I made films that were pretty much nothing. I had no idea of what I was trying to communicate, really, and so I communicated nothing. If I had been smart I would have realized that when I sat down and watched the films of all the CalArtians that came before me, I always enjoyed the simple ones that were all about personality.
Which leads to my next piece of advice, which is simply: simplify.
If you want to make a short film that expresses a lot of character, you don't want to be devoting a lot of screen time to explaining things or covering territory unrelated to personality and character. So simplify - just put an interesting character into a situation that we all get right away.
Also simplify your character designs so that you can move them around well and they are expressive and appealing without being time-consuming or difficult to draw, so you are able to focus on animating and the performance and not spending all your time drawing and fussing over lines.
"Simplify" is always good advice, and it applies to everything. Simplify your film as much as you can, without making it bland and uninteresting, so that you can spend your time working on the parts that are important.
Simplifying your drawing is always good advice as well. The best animation drawings always make a strong statement and have a strong pose to them that communicates well. One of the only ways I know to do this is to "simplify" the drawing so that everything is additive to the statement that you want to make and nothing is making a counter-statement. The great life drawing teacher Steve Huston calls it "grouping" - the more you can bind everything together in your drawing to make one statement, the better the drawing will be. A figure drawn so that it looks like a bunch of parts stuck together would be the opposite of this, and we've all drawn figures that look this way, and all know how bad that looks!
Very few people are as good at "grouping" things as Fred Moore. Even the long cigar, which could easily "fight" the statement of the pose, fits in line with the gesture. Everything in this drawing is drawn to fit into the same rhythm. Everything becomes subordinate to it, and that's how "simplifying" can really help your drawing.
I hope that's helpful in some way. If I've confused you horribly, my apologies. At least it was pretty short!