Sunday, January 27, 2008

Reflections on a Golden Droid

Recently, I tried to show "Star Wars" to my daughter, and here are some ruminations about that experience. If you don't want to read about that, and are only interested in some thoughts about some aspects of the film's structure I noticed while viewing the film again, please scroll down to the part labeled "The Film Making Part". I can't believe I have to say this, but just in case you've never seen the movie...there are spoilers.

My daughter, who is six, has never seen any of the "Star Wars" movies but she knows about them, because every boy she knows loves them. She got to play a "Star Wars" video game at a birthday party and she was asking me about certain characters, so I asked her if she wanted to check out the movie (the original, "Episode IV" if you will). She said yes.

Now she's about the same age as I was when I saw the movie and my life was changed by the experience. But I am always careful not to let on what I like and don't like so that I can see her unadulterated reaction to things, and I always wonder how many of her six-year-old friends like "Star Wars" because they know their dads love it.

As I sort of figured, she wasn't able to even make it an hour into the movie before she grew tired of it and said she was bored, and we turned it off to go play outside with our marshmallow shooters.

Anyway, the bad news is that I'd hoped she would like it so we could share the experience of enjoying the film. The good news is that it confirms that I know her as well as I thought I did. Somehow I just didn't think it would be something she would like, but it was even more interesting than I thought it would be to watch it with her and gauge her reactions to things (it didn't enhance the experience much that her four-year-old brother was running around the room and yelling through the whole thing).

It's been a long time since I saw the movie and I had never really realized just how much talking and sitting around there is at the beginning of the film. Worse yet, there's a lot of talk about concepts like "The Force", "The Empire" and "The Rebellion" that are really hard to illustrate and come off as kind of hard to understand (now don't get me wrong, I still think it's an amazing piece of work).

Back when the film came out there was nothing like it, of course, but kids today are bombarded by so much media that something has to catch their interest and engage it right away. So "Star Wars" comes from a time when film makers were a little more free to take their time and go at a slower pace.

I don't think that this means everything these days is all flash and no substance or anything like that, which people are always tempted to say. It's actually a good thing that film makers have to work hard to capture our attention and hold it; it makes them have to be sharper and smarter in how they do things. And films that are all flash and all substance never really make an impact; a film has to both capture our attention and give us something deeper and more satisfying to stand the test of time and be considered "great". Film makers today face greater challenges than ever before to both stand out from the competition and deliver something meaningful to an audience.

It's ironic to see how slowly "Star Wars" begins, because of course it's been blamed for creating the blockbuster genre, movies that are all spectacle and no substance and move at a breakneck pace. Because it definitely doesn't move at a breakneck pace. Also much of the film centers around ideas of spirituality, rejecting technology in favor of faith, and pursuing a moral path at the expense of personal wealth, among other things, hardly trivial or shallow areas of human experience.

And anyone that thinks that "Star Wars" and films like it have killed the type of film that moves slowly, deals with difficult issues and doesn't resolve itself in an easy way for the audience to swallow should look no further than this year's crop of Oscar contenders. There are more films made today than in 1977 - by far - and there are way more of those types of film made today than ever before, for sure.

Unfortunately none of those Oscar contenders has made a lot of money this year and they rarely do in any other year either. People happen to like the kind of thrills and satisfying good vs. bad morality that "Star Wars" offers and that's the kind of movie that most people want to see. It's not hard to understand this; after a week of working long hours and all the pressures of your job and taking care of your family, few people want to pluck down $20 to see a movie (and more than that for the babysitter) to see something that may let them down or be totally confusing and/or unsatisfying. They want two hours of something that will take their mind off all of their troubles and re-affirm their fervent hope that good will win over bad and that everything will be all right in the end.

For all of the talk that we hear that Hollywood is full of soulless monsters just trying to squeeze a dishonest buck out of a nation full of mouth-breathing saps, I am glad we live in a world where films like "Pirates of the Caribbean" can be seen alongside films like "No Country for Old Men", "There Will be Blood" and "Atonement". People are still able to make films that ask difficult questions and explore complicated themes, even with all of the "giant big evil corporations" running the film industry.

One more interesting thing, lest you think that the next generation is doomed to be a mass of attention-deficit-disorder riddled morons, my daughter loves dinosaurs and so has seen "Jurassic Park" (I didn't think she was ready but my wife showed it to her one day while I was at work). She loved the movie and enjoyed it all the way to the end. The interesting thing to note is that "Jurassic Park", if anything, is way, way slower to get started than "Star Wars" and takes a lot longer to get to any exciting action. And just like "Star Wars", it also has a lot of exposition about things that are hard to understand and visualize.

So, if you want to worry about the next generation, worry about this:

Concerned that the violence of the movie was too much for my daughter to take, I asked her about it, and she revealed that the only thing that bothered her about the film is that the dinosaurs didn't "win" in the end and that the people got away. She loves dinosaurs so much that she was rooting for them to eat everyone - although maybe that says something about the paper-thin characterizations of the people in the movie. The dinosaurs in the movie have way more personality than the people do.

Okay, now here's the

So, I noticed a couple of interesting things that I hadn't noticed before (at least in the part we watched).

A lot has always been made of the fact that Luke and Leia wear white in this film because they represent the "good" side. And of course, Luke wears darker and darker clothes in the succeeding two films as he struggles with his morality and becomes tempted by the "Dark Side" of the Force.

But I had never thought about applying that same visual template to Han Solo. If you remember, his outfit is a white shirt, black vest and pants, so he is a mix of the two colors, which suggests that his costume reflects his dual nature in the first film: he is torn between self-sacrifice (doing what is right) and self-preservation (doing what will save his neck).

The structure of the film has some really great components to it. As I said, the first part of the movie is full of some really hard concepts to visualize for the audience. There's a lot of talk about the power of this thing called "The Force" as well as the struggle between "The Empire" and "The Rebellion".

That's why the opening of the film is so great: starting the film with a big exciting battle not only gives you enough action to carry your interest through the slower parts to follow, but it also illustrates visually and personalizes the war that's going on so we can see it and know what they're all talking about when we're seeing people just sit around and talk about the conflict.

Also, the way that opening battle is handled does a great job of telling you who is winning and who is losing. The giant Imperial ship is hundreds of times bigger than the pathetic rebel ship and has no trouble subduing the craft. Then when we see the guys in the rebel ship preparing to defend it from a boarding party, they don't look very confident or well-equipped, and when the stormtroopers enter they look much more professional and well-suited for the fight with much better armor than the rebels.

The most interesting thing to me was this: the first we hear about "The Force" is in Ben's house as he tells Luke that it exists and how powerful it can be.

Now this is a really strange concept to introduce and talk about, definitely something you'd want to visualize for the audience so they know what the heck you're talking about, and so that we know it's real in this world and that the old man isn't just losing his marbles.

A lesser film maker probably would have had Ben demonstrate his power over the Force by having Ben move some objects around his house with the Force, or something, just to illustrate what he can do and move on with the story. But this would have been very weird and felt very false, and stuck out as exactly what it is: a moment that stops the story to illustrate a concept without any dramatic purpose to it, and it would have broken the spell the audience was under and cause them to think: "Oh, they just attached wires to that chair and moved it to make it seem like he was using this 'Force' stuff".

So they let the scene play out organically and we leave the scene hearing about the Force but not really quite getting what he means - but we know that we're not totally supposed to get it yet, because Luke looks confused as well.

Now, the part that comes immediately after this scene is the scene aboard the Death Star, where some sort of council is meeting, and they are arguing about how much of a threat the rebels are. Darth Vader enters, one of the council members starts questioning Vader about why he hasn't been able to find the stolen plans, and mocks Vader by saying that Vader's control of "The Force" hasn't helped him conjure up the missing plans.

So Darth Vader begins to choke the guy from across the room without touching him, and Vader says that he finds the guy's lack of faith in the Force disturbing.

Now isn't that brilliant? To go from the scene in Ben's house, where the idea of the Force is introduced, but is all words, right to a scene that clearly illustrates how the Force actually works and how Vader can wield it? And it's such a nice touch to work in the idea that the guy is actually questioning the whole idea of the Force when he gets choked, and Vader is actually strangling him for not believing in it?

That's great structure, and great writing, and the most amazing thing about it is that it works and doesn't feel jammed in there as exposition and as just conveniently placed to explain a difficult concept to the audience.

That is great writing. Most people think a flowery exchange of dialogue between two characters or a long monologue from an actor to the audience is what "great writing" is but I totally disagree. Ninety-five percent of writing is structuring the events of the story correctly so that they are in the right order, build properly and resolve themselves in a satisfying (and hopefully surprising way.

Another interesting thing is the use of the light saber in the story. we first see it in Ben's house, where he tells us that it is a weapon, and that it's more elegant than a blaster. We see Luke wave it around but, again, we don't see it's effect on anything. Lucas could have had Luke cut a chair in two so we could see what it could do, but he didn't for the same reason that he didn't have Ben fling a chair across the room using the Force: this is a quiet, intimate scene and anything that would have destroyed that feeling should be avoided, and besides, the audience doesn't need to be force-fed everything all at once. This is a scene where we hear about things we don't quite understand yet, and Lucas is a confident enough film maker to know that he will have enough time to unfold all we need to know in later scenes and make everything clear. In fact, if everything about the Force could be explained in one scene it would undermine the mystery and scope of the Force, simplifying it to something anyone could understand in five minutes. And every movie should hold back things from the audience; tease them, let them be confused for a minute, so that when the get the answer they feel satisfaction and delight at having figured it out. As the saying goes, don't just give them four, give them two plus two and let them come up with four by themselves.

Anyway, so all we know after that scene is that the light saber is some sort of weapon.

Now when they go to the bar a while later to find a pilot, there is a scene that might seem unnecessary: Luke unintentionally runs afoul of some criminals at the bar, and they threaten to kill him. One of them pulls a gun and Ben reacts quickly by cutting off his arm with his light saber.

Again, this is a great scene for many reasons: the most important is that, without it, we won't see how a light saber works until the end of the movie, when Ben confronts Vader. Sure, we see Luke training with one in the middle of act two, but that's not really showing what it can do. If the audience had to wait until the very end to see what they can do, you risk the audience being disconnected and not really remembering what this thing really is, and more importantly, we wouldn't really be as scared for Ben if we didn't know exactly how quickly efficient and deadly a light saber can be.

The moment of the bar fight is perfect, because it also serves as some action to get us through one of the slower parts of the movie, and because - again - it does a really good job of hiding the fact that it's exposition and just there to show us what a light saber can do. It hides itself well because, after all, Ben just told us this was a tough place, so it seems natural that someone would start a fight here, and a boy fresh off the farm would probably be the one they would pick a fight with. You know, once someone says "watch yourself, this bar is full of tough characters" you almost owe the audience some sort of fulfillment on that promise, and Lucas is smart enough to know that we want to see that expectation fulfilled. It also helps to make Han seem cooler and tougher by extension, because he hangs out all the time among these type of people, and also helps the moment a beat later when Greedo sits down, because now you know that people actually die here all the time so Han is in real trouble.

Of course, it goes without saying that it's also the only moment in the movie where you get to see the other side of Ben, until he takes on Vader. Despite Ben's affable and kindly exterior, he's still quick and deadly when he needs to be. This is really important so that when he faces off against Vader st the end, the audience doesn't laugh at the idea of this old man in his bathrobe going up against The Terminator. Instead, we are totally intrigued and sitting on the edge of our seat, because we know Ben can be tough when he wants to be, but now he's going up against the toughest guy in the universe. which one will prevail in the end?

And then Lucas does the great thing and surprises us by having one of them lose intentionally, but that's another thread, and I suppose I've talked enough for now!

Oh, just one more thing I never noticed before: a nice little piece of foreshadowing. When Luke meets Ben, he asks if he knows "Obi-Wan" and if Obi-Wan is till alive, Ben has a great reaction as he says "Oh, no he's not least not yet". This plays on a whole different level once you know that he will be dead by the end of the film. It helps set up the idea that he's considered his own mortality, and I think it softens the blow to the audience at the end when he's cut down because he's grappled with and come to terms with his own death. It makes it easier to believe that he could sacrifice his own life in the end for a greater purpose.

Maybe sometime I will sit and watch the rest of the movie and see what else I see that I missed before.

So many of the moments in the movie has become visual icons that it's hard to see them objectively and realize how great many of the compositions in the movie are, and how well they tell the story at times.

Gotta love this shot.

This next series of shots is great - Artoo hides while the Sand People drag an unconscious Luke into frame and pillage his Landspeeder. The fact that Luke was attacked by the Sand People is all R2's fault for running away, so this little sequence gives you the idea that R2 feels bad about it and concerned for Luke, which is great so we don't end up not liking the little guy. We sympathize with him because he's just trying to fulfill his mission and he didn't mean for Luke to get hurt.

Maybe I will try and post more screengrabs later. Thirty years later, the film continues to astound and surprise me.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Splashing Around

Things are really busy and I'm working on some big the meantime, this is a very small post about a film that's less than a minute. Check it out.

A student could do a lot worse than aim for making a student film as good as this. Nothing that complicated, just very simple and appealing designs that do what animation does best: showcase different personalities in how they all approach the same simple task differently. No dialogue to put over their personalities, just the way they move and apply themselves to the task at hand to tell you who they are and how they differ from each other. Great timing too - what a great rhythm to the piece.

Through the years I've seen some really complicated student films blow audiences away but more often than not it was the simple, sincere, heartfelt and well-thought out piece that really caught everyone's attention and got the biggest applause. Simplicity is a wonderful thing and I believe simplicity lies at the heart of making something appealing. The ironic thing is how hard it is to be simple. We resist it because it seems too easy, that nobody will like our work unless we smother it in layers of complexity, and that way if it's bad, at least nobody will be able to tell because they won't be able to penetrate all of our layers of complexity!

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Links to Animation Interviews

UPDATE: Gareth provided a link to a version of the Bill Peet interview that contains all of the images and the whole thing on one page. Thanks, Gareth!

Recently, John K. posted some excerpts from a Bill Peet interview that was published in "Hogan's Alley" magazine about 13 y ago. Back then I worked really hard to track down a copy of it, but since then I had completely forgotten about it, so I'm really glad that John excerpted it and brought it to light. I didn't see a link to the whole thing on his blog, so just in case anyone missed it, here's a link to the whole thing. It's the most honest and forthright animation interview ever published, given by a guy who contributed a lot and didn't get as much credit as he felt he deserved.

He makes some fascinating claims in the article, most notably that he animated a whole section of "Dumbo" for Bill Tytla. I've heard a few people grumble over the years about Bill Peet saying that but no one's ever denied that it's true. If you ever looked at Bill Peet's Dumbo boards in the "Paper Dreams" book you'll see it's entirely possible. His drawings of Dumbo are amazingly appealing and "on model" before there probably was a model. This also suggests that there's truth to the rumor that Bill Peet felt like he did a lot of the character design works in the storyboard stage but animators got all the credit for designing all of the Disney characters when basically all they were doing was taking his designs and animating them.

Years ago John Cawley wrote a book called "How to Create Animation" that contained interviews with some different animation artists. All of those interviews are now online here. Unfortunately the artwork from the book is not reproduced because there was some great development stuff. If I can find my copy of the book I will scan it and post it someday, but anyway the interviews are great to see because there are some great animation artists included in the collection that one rarely hears about.

Simply put, there are two types of great animation artists: those you've heard of and those you haven't. The ones you haven't heard of are just as great as the "famous" ones, they just haven't been in the spotlight. Be sure to check out the interviews with Ed Gombert, Mike Giaimo, Chris Buck and Darrel Van Citters (founder of Renegade Animation) to learn something about some great animation artists that you've probably - and shamefully - never heard of.

One only wishes that John Cawley would update the book and re-do the interviews because everyone in the book has done so much more since the book's publication. But in any case, it's great to be able to read these interviews for free, go check them out!

Monday, January 14, 2008

"An Emotional Delivery System"

In his book, "Writing for Emotional Impact", Karl Iglesias points out that there are many screenwriting books that talk about how to fix the structure of your movie but many of them neglect the most important part of making a movie: delivering an emotional experience to the viewer. The phrase "an emotional delivery system" is how Karl describes movies.

Karl illustrates this point in an interesting way; he points out that, when you see an ad or poster for a movie, the quotes that they pick from critics to make the movie sound good never say things like "...this film had a flawless structure!" or "This film had the perfect number of subplots to sustain act two!", instead they always say things like " emotional roller-coaster" or "'ll need ten hankies to get through this one" or "...a nail-biter from beginning to end" which are all statements that speak more to the film maker's ability to manipulate your emotions that to their talent for forging a perfectly structured film.

This is a good point, and one that gets overlooked sometimes in film production. There are so many different books that offer helpful insight into how to fix the structure of your script and, after all, it is very, very important for the structure to work. But ultimately you want the structure to service the overall emotional experience of the film - the whole point of the structure is to make the emotional "punch" of the film work as effectively as possible.

But since it's so much easier to talk about the structure - after all, screenwriting books have provided us with a language to deal with and discuss structure (terms like inciting incident, the act two midpoint, etc.) as well as countless numbers of pages devoted to how to fix the structure of any movie, reams and reams devoted to the rules, principles and tools that can be applied to fix any ailing storyline. That makes talking about the structure so much easier to do than discussing the emotional component of the movie, because there aren't nearly as many books written that really talk about how to make sure the emotional aspect of your movie is working, and we don't have a short-hand vocabulary for talking about emotional structure like we do for discussing plot structure. And making the emotional side work is so much more subjective...I think a lot of it comes from who we are and what we've been through, because the films that seem to resonate with people seem to be those that speak to things that mean something to them and what they've experienced, and the same films don't always elicit the same emotions in everybody.

I felt that for years we fell into the trap at Disney of thinking that as long as we analyzed and scrutinized the structure to death we would ensure that the movie would succeed. You can see how this might happen at a studio - studios are always trying to make a "bulletproof" movie that will appeal to everyone and be "guaranteed" to be a critical and financial success. It's not hard to see that nervous executives and film makers would comfort themselves with the "crutch" of thinking that as long as the structure is executed perfectly, the film will resonate with the public and be a hit.

I always felt (and I've said this many a time in the past, usually to the kind of awkward silence that most of my pronouncements inspire in listeners) that this is like putting together a watch and making all of the gears work perfectly. It may "work" and it may even be fascinating to watch for a short time, but it doesn't inspire any kind of emotional response in the viewer.

Anyway I haven't read much of the book yet (another Christmas gift) so I can't share any of Mr. Iglesias's specific techniques for improving stories, but as I get further along I will share some more of his thoughts with you, if they seem worthwhile.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Born Standing Up

For Christmas I received Steve Martin's new Autobiography "Born Standing Up". It chronicles his childhood, adolescence and his rocky, meandering road to stardom as a stand-up comedian. It's very short and I read it in a couple of nights, unfortunately - I wish it had been longer. I found it to be fascinating and inspiring - very well written and a very candid portrait of an artist as he struggles to find his own artistic voice. For whatever reason, he was able to articulate many of the things I felt as I developed and struggled as an artist, and it made me feel so much better to hear someone else put it all into words.

I hate recommending things like this, because everyone feels differently and what seems revelatory to me will surely seem obvious and irrelevant to someone else. If you read the reviews on you will see that most people really enjoyed the book and were struck by how honest it was and how sensitively it was written. Then again a few people seemed to think it was going to be more gossipy and have more "funny stories" in it, or that it was going to be more "wacky", like his stand up routines. It is neither - it was just the story of how he found his voice in a field where there was no precedent for what he was doing, and how hard he had to work to overcome everyone that told him that it wouldn't work, and how he had to face his own doubts and fears and how he was able to defeat these things so he could succeed.

Listening to Steve Martin albums was one of the few things my family seemed to do together when I was a kid that we all enjoyed. I can't imagine why my parents let me listen to them but I'm really glad they did. I didn't understand much of it back then but his enthusiasm, delivery and timing always made me laugh no matter what he was saying. In an era where I thought "The Muppet Show" was the greatest thing ever produced by mankind, it seemed to me that Steve Martin's irreverence and silliness were all there were to his act, that every performer ought to be that way, that being a good-natured goofball was his whole repertoire and that was just fine with me. Now, thinking back on what I remember of his act, I realize I was missing all of the irony to it, that what he was really doing was "anti-comedy" (as he calls it), making fun of the shtick that comedians have been doing for ages as well as pretending to be a failure to get laughs out of his own faked discomfort and frustration.

Anyway, here are a few of my favorite passages from the book:

Writing about an old book written by Dariel Fitzkee about performing magic:
"Fitzkee starts by denigrating the current state of magic, saying it is old-fashioned. Though published in 1943, this statement contains an enduring truth. All entertainment is or is about to become old-fashioned. There is room, he implies, for something new."

"At age eighteen, I had absolutely no gifts. I could not sing or dance, and the only acting I did was really just shouting. Thankfully, perseverance is a great substitute for talent."

"Despite a lack of natural ability, I did have the one element necessary to all early creativity; naïveté, that fabulous quality that keeps you from knowing just how unsuited you are for what you are about to do."

"Throughout the years, I have learned there is no harm in charging oneself up with delusions between moments of valid inspiration."

Sunday, January 06, 2008

A Second Look at Sempé (and some Blake, and More on Simplicity)

Despite the fact that not too many people seemed interested in my previous post about - and analysis of - the French artist Sempé, I wanted to share some more of his work with everyone, and maybe if people were put off by all of the words I wrote then they can just skip all the blather and just look at the pictures (click to see bigger).

Part of the resolution issue is that, sadly, the two books I have were printed on rather rough, cheap paper, hardly appropriate for the subtleties of his drawings! Ah well, click to see all of these bigger.

I shouldn't be surprised about the lack of interest in his work. I am about to make a huge generalization*, but it seems that the vast majority of people - both artists and casual viewers - gravitate more towards artists who are "showy", who put a lot of detail into their work and don't leave much to the imagination. One of my early posts was about Jack Davis and the fact that he draws to such a high level of concentrated detail in some of his drawings, and about how I found that his drawings worked so much better when he would suggest detail rather than drawing all of it, or simplify areas of detail so that they weren't fully drawn out. I was very surprised back then that nobody seemed to agree with me - when I went so far as to say that I found that some of his drawings became unappealing when they were too crowded with detail I got a bit of a backlash.

I never said that Mr. Davis doesn't draw well; but drawing well and drawing appealingly are two totally different areas. Then again it is easy for people to agree on who draws well and who doesn't, but when it comes to deciding what is "appealing" things become much more subjective and it becomes clear that everyone has a different definition of what makes a drawing appealing.

I find Sempé's work to be very appealing. Just like Quentin Blake, I love the way Sempé's work only has the minimum of what is required to make the statement he intends. Even Alex Toth, who most people would agree draws quite well, said that he felt like he didn't really know how to draw well until he figured out "what to leave out". Unfortunately, I think that to most observers, when an artist streamlines and leaves a lot of things out, it appears that the artist doesn't know how to draw, and I just couldn't agree less with that way of thinking.

Some of Quentin Blake's work.

I would make the comparison that when you watch a superb athlete play a sport, they make it look easy. Part of the reason it looks easy is because an athlete who knows what he (or she) is doing doesn't make any extra unnecessary movements or actions. On the other hand, watching an amateur can make the same sport look extremely difficult because the amateur expends a lot of extra energy and makes a lot more extra superfluous movements as he or she flails around trying to accomplish the same things that the professional does with a practiced minimum of effort.

I would say that the same thing applies to drawing. Don't make the mistake of thinking that a simple drawing is indicative of an artist who can't draw. Two of the hardest parts of drawing are knowing how to put everything in the right place and being able to make your drawings communicate what you intend them to mean. Both Blake and Sempé excel at this, often far beyond other artists - even those who add much more detail and fussiness to their drawings in an effort to cover up or shore up the fact that they've fallen down in these two other basic areas.

There are plenty of artists out there who do draw very simply and poorly as well; those artists who actually can't draw but hide behind a simplistic "style" to try and hide the fact that they don't really know what they're doing. The easiest way to tell the difference is the two areas mentioned above, especially the first. These types of people are easy to spot because they never put things in the right place. When Blake dashes off a sketch of a person, the elbows are always in the right place, the head always feels like it's placed correctly on the neck,etc. - all of the elements always feel like they add up to one clear idea. A good artist knows that they can dash off a quick sketch like this and then, if need be, later they can come back and go over the drawing and add detail if need be. As long as all of the pieces are placed correctly and the idea is communicating, then all of thinking has already been done and cleaning up the drawing is just an academic exercise. An amateur artist is one who thinks that doing a quick sketch just means drawing a sloppy scribble without effort. This type of person doesn't understand the difference between a quick sketch with all of the information placed correctly and a doodle that doesn't require much artistic effort at all.

Above all else keep in mind that this blog is written by a storyboard artist, and I can't help but write about drawing as I've come to understand it in relation to my profession. A story artist has every reason to learn to draw simply and communicate with as little effort as possible because a story artist has to think about building a whole story and a whole film as he or she draws. A story artist isn't focused as much on each drawing as they are on how the ideas stack up, build, and create a story and world of characters. Story artists churn out thousands (yes, thousands) of drawings over the course of a movie, and unlike an animator or a layout person, when a story artist draws they have no idea if that drawing will survive for an hour, a day, a week or three years before the idea behind it changes or is improved and the whole thing will have to be redrawn. So good story artists - for practical purposes, as well as for their own sanity - learn to draw with economy and learn how to say a lot with a minimum of effort, because they have to churn out so many drawings one after another. Detail and complicated drawings don't do much to help tell the story and any artist that spends too much time and effort on those unimportant areas in a story sketch will soon become very frustrated and move on to another department.

So those of us who pursue our lives doing storyboards could do a lot worse than to learn from Sempé. His staging is always flawless. He places the camera wherever it will best tell the story, and always has the subject as near to or as far away from the camera as will best put over the idea. He draws just enough to convey his idea and give us a real sense of where the scene is taking place. And his expressions and body language are always very clear and just right for the moment. His expressions are easy to dismiss, I suppose, because sometimes they might seem broad, but other times he tackles such subtle ideas and puts over such sublime human experiences and emotions that they would never work unless he was able to handle them with just the right touch and the right acting and expression for the moment. His carefully calibrated expressions and poses are amazingly precise for each idea, and it cannot be understated how impossibly difficult this can be, no matter how "simply" the drawing may be handled.

More than anything else, this is what suggests we study Sempé and try to apply what he does to storyboarding; the subject matter he chooses to portray. Some of his cartoons are broad and instantly "gettable", but many of his ideas are so well observed - he man to express some of the moments between people that we can all recognize, yet we don't really stop to think about them when they happen, or even if we did, we don't have the right words to describe (although admittedly I didn't scan many of that type here, because they tend to be spread out over several pages) - and that would be such a great thing to get into animation that we could do a lot worse than aspire to be as wonderful as Sempé. Not to mention the fact that most of his work communicates everything without resorting to the "crutch" of dialogue or the written word - another thing that animation should aspire to, but rarely ever does these days.

All of these Sempé drawings are from "Nothing is Simple".

*I believe it was Fox Connor who was credited as saying "All generalizations are untrue, including this one".