Saturday, July 17, 2010

A Kick in the Head, Part Six

I'm beating a familiar drum with this one, so I'll keep it short.

Bring something personal to your work to make it great.

To be a great animator, story artist, layout person or any kind of artist, it takes more than just the ability to draw well or the technical ability to do the job well. To be truly great at our jobs, we have to be able to crawl inside our worlds and characters and understand them from the inside. We have to be able to know how they would act in any situation, what drives them, what their deepest desires and biggest fears are. These are all what makes a great actor able to give a great performance, and we are no different. It’s easy with our rushed schedules and overwhelming amount of workload to lose sight of the only really important part of our jobs - creating great characters and telling compelling stories.

Only someone who has ever had a cat lay on them would be able to feel this action in their mind and capture the expressions that really show how this feels. There's a real gravity and sincerity to the way it's handled, and anyone that watches the cartoon "Feed the Kitty" will react to this with a smile of recognition if they've ever had a cat curl up on them. You can't fake that kind of sincerity and there's no short cut to finding great ideas like this. You have to live life and experience it and then know how and when to apply those experiences to your work to give your worlds a sense that they are real places with actual living, breathing characters in them.

Every person has a unique viewpoint that has been created by their life experiences. As much as you may admire another artist’s work, you can never have the same life experiences that caused them to be the artist they are. Bring your singular viewpoint to your work and make an original statement. Don’t repeat what’s already been done.

Why do I sound this constant drumbeat? I guess because I see this as the greatest challenge facing animation today. We are in a period where more animation is produced for film, television, video games and other media than ever before. And I think much of it is disposable and completely unmemorable, which is a shame.

If you're like me you grew up watching Warner Brothers cartoons on television. The best of those feature nothing more than great personalities in conflict with each other (a sly, clever rabbit and a manic, explosive duck try to convince a naive hunter to shot the other one instead of themselves) and that's all you need to generate great entertainment. Sure, the Warner Bros. cartoons occasionally had references to other movies and pop culture nods but those were the bits that went over our heads as kids. So when I see TV shows that do nothing more than reference other movies or shows or pop culture, it's never really funny or inventive, and it invariably feels like a missed opportunity. Great characters will always be the most entertaining and inventive part of our business and will always be the cornerstone of any movie or TV show that gets the best reviews, biggest audiences and is remembered fondly for years to come.

So don't spend all of your time watching movies and sitting in the dark drawing cartoons. To do great work you have to have other interests and experiences to draw from. These don't have to be monumental, earth-shattering experiences, if you just take the time to be aware of the world around you and be present as your life happens. Just the simple everyday experience of having a cat curl up on you can lead to an original, compelling moment of animation that will bring a smile and a laugh to your audience and can live on forever.


Smurfswacker said...

Design, acting and drawing can be self-referential, too. This is the what bugs me about the anime style: everything is consciously based upon a set of rules (or formulas, if you will) which in many cases are very narrow. Work in this style becomes a better or worse variation on a theme, rather than an altogether new theme.

Recently I've seen a trend in Disney product (movies, TV, comics) to base their lead characters on successful designs from past pictures. The guys look like Variations on a Theme by Aladdin and the girls seem to be Ariel's cousins (unless they're Asian, when they become Mulan). It's annoying.

[As a flame-protective measure let me warn commentators in advance not to globalize these remarks. I'm not saying "all animation looks the same." It doesn't. I'm pointing out two specific instances where creators seem to limit themselves by referencing the work of others.]

Stephen Worth said...

For a medium that has the potential to say anything the mind can conceive, animation is dumbfoundingly generic. Someone should pack all the formulas, archetypes and preconceived notions into a rocket ship and fire it into the deepest reaches of space so we don't have to be held back by them any more.

The thing that distresses me most is seeing artists held in the yoke of big business studios head down the exact same paths when they get a chance to make their own films. Whenever I hear animators talk about the sorts of stories animation is suited to telling, I want to throttle them. If those of us who make cartoons subscribe to the theory of animation being a genre, there's no hope.

Anonymous said...

Smurfswacker doesn't need to apologize for his observation about the sameness in Hollywood animated product. No, it doesn't all look the same, but not for a lack of trying.

I've only seen the trailers for Megamind and Tangled, and I'm already bored. The smirky "heroes" from both movies are irritating as all get out. The only difference I see between Metro Man and the Thief is one can fly.

Quentin Lebegue said...

This is some pretty awesome advice. I loooove your Kick in the Head posts !

Rafi animates said...

Great post. Glad I'm not the only one who feels this way about animation.

Robert said...

I agree there's lots of disposable animation around but the inverse situation is also difficult, the mindset that every animation must be an enduring monument for all time.

We allow the other arts to do casual throw aways (99% of pop music?) and even celebrate them sometimes so maybe it's OK that that happens in animation.

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Sarah said...

Of the myriad reasons I love animation this aspect of capturing moments in life has to be right up there at the top. For me the enjoyment of Feed the Kitty rests on its amazing ability to capture exactly what you describe, the near universal feeling people get when something small and vulnerable and sweet curls up on you. The rest of the story depends on the viewer getting that. I noticed that in the actual cartoon the kitty ends up being smaller in comparison to Mark Antony than in the sketch and it works even better that way because Pussyfoot becomes even more vulnerable so you get why Mark Antony is so out of his mind to protect her. And this is all accomplished in the fast pace of a Merrie Melodies cartoon!

At the risk of being too abstract, I think that for many the appeal of animation is communicating a shared experience. Sitting down with a friend and discussing things like the small delight of a cat sitting on you isn't likely to happen very often but animation brings up these sorts of moments all the time.

I'm a total sucker for shorts that have a bit of sincerity or a sensitivity... or just a character you worry a little about just to round out or accompany the lightness of the medium. The Little House or Susie the Blue Coupe comes to mind. Some of the heart melting scenes in Dumbo as well, like his bath which captures a baby's bubbly delight in soapy water (and so much more). I agree that the ability to capture these things probably depends on the animator's experiences and unique personality.

Paul B said...

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Anonymous said...

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