Sunday, August 24, 2008

Advice for Students 2008

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!


Brian said...

Great advice. My student films always took too much time and too much work and had too much going on with too many characters.

vinimation said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
vinimation said...

I'm in my final year and have to make my student film this year and at this point your writing long posts of advice would be very very welcome indeed ! please sir, could we have some more?

Randeep Katari said...

Fantastic advice. I'll be taking it again as I work on the next film :)

Hope your well..

Anonymous said...

Mark, your blog is filled with wonderful tutorials and advice, very helpful to all animation students/professionals/curious followers. Your time and effort has definitely not been unnoticed.

Please keep the blog running as I will continue to recommend it to other people.

Thanks! And well done!

Braden said...

Hey Mark,

Thanks for the solid words of wisdom. Alot of us are most likely in the same boat you were at Calarts, not realizing just what we like about those little films we watch, and so when we go to create our own films we may get a little ambitious. Thanks for drilling those ideas home. :)

samacleod said...

Great post, great Fred Moore drawing too.

That is some really great advice. It's very tempting for students to make their films too complicated. They want to infuse all of this deep meaning in their films, and that is just super difficult to pull off (unless you're Michael Dudok De Wit)in such a short amount of time and with masterful clarity of storytelling. If you have what it takes, then by all means go for it.

But it might be best to take smaller bites, learn how to tell a "simple" story first with power and clarity, and as you said, Strong Characters and Familiar Settings.

There is so much potential in finding a sincere, authentic character moment, one idea that can be pulled off very quickly (like a 30 second commercial!).
Just as "long films" aren't always deep, "short films" are not always shallow.

Simple and unique.

Alonso said...

useful post. thank you

amelia said...

I'll be starting at CalArts next week, and I can't wait. This is great timing for your advice. I appreciate it!

k. borcz said...

good point

sdembel said...

hello i leave a comment here to talk you about line of action.
you often says why whe should use them but i never understand how to use it,where should it come from and where should it end...
thanks fo you time

Richard Phelan said...

That's such great advice Mark, thanks so much for posting, your blog is always great for helpful hints and ideas. I'm currently working on a grad animation film being made at the film school in the UK and I'll definitely be sharing this with all the animators there :)

Anonymous said...

Any way we could see examples of good short films from when you were a student?Keep up the great blog

Anonymous said...

Great post Mark. If only I had this kind of guidance when I was a student. I probably made every mistake there is to make on my student work.

Keep it up man, your posts are always solid gold!

teresa said...

I remember reading your post about this last year and I found it incredibly inspiring! I'm in the process right now of taking my short film from planning to blocking at animation mentor and I find your advice quite timely. Thanks so much for the great insight and advice, it's much appreciated! :)

mark kennedy said...

brian - sounds just like my films. Thanks for the comment!

vin - glad you like the advice. If I can think of more I will post it.

randeep - good, glad it helped!

anon - thanks so much for the kind words, it means a lot and it keeps me going!

braden - thanks for the comment, glad the post made sense.

steve- good thoughts, you're right, I always say commercials are a good thing to look at as far as making a student film clear, simple and entertaining.

alonso - good, glad it was useful!

amelia - ah, you are very lucky! Enjoy CalArts and good luck with it!

k - thanks for the comment, as always!

sdembel - I will talk more about ti soon, if I can. It's a line that goes through the whole body, and everything (or almost everything) should fall in line with it. It's usually a simple curve or an S-curve, nothing more complicated than that.

richard - great, glad it was helpful and good luck with the film!

anon - ha, luckily my student films are entirely forgotten and buried, lost to time. They are truly mediocre and not worth seeing! Thanks for the kind words, though!

anon - thanks so much. The kind words are greatly appreciated!

teresa - glad it all helped, keep it simple and good luck with the film!

willborough said...

this is great advice. I'm trying to come up with a story for my senior film next year. And i'm having a lot of difficulty keeping my plots simple and short. I find that combining action or excitement with profoundness is sheer impossible to pull off in a short film. I find it a very frustrating process. Glad to see i'm not alone in having difficulty with a senior film.


Joe said...

Good advice, thank you very much.

Kevin Barber said...

Helpfull to both students and pros as well. Great observations.

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