Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Animation Guild Blog Interview with Ed Gombert

Steve Hulett did a great audio interview with Story artist Ed Gombert that's posted on The Animation Guild website. Ed is very honest and direct and gives a very good sense of what it's actually like to work as a Story Artist. It can be downloaded in two parts, part one is here and part two is here.

It's all great stuff, but in particular I liked hearing about what he learned working with legendary Disney animator Frank Thomas, and how, more than anything, Frank placed an emphasis on artists thinking for themselves and not looking to other people to supply answers for them and tell them what to do. I think that's an essential attribute for any successful artist. One of the biggest challenges of working in a big animation studio on a project with hundreds of other artists is to make your work dovetail with and compliment the work of all those other artists, without copying what they're doing or following their direction blindly and/or literally.

Walt Disney famously said that "Artists are a dime a dozen". The way Joe Grant used to explain that quote was that Walt was saying that there are an abundance of people who can produce pretty pictures. But the really useful artists are much rarer, and they are the ones who can think. These are the ones who can produce artwork that has character and personality to it and can use their talents to tell a story well.

Anyway, definitely give it a listen.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Three Magic Questions

If you've ever spent any time reading this blog before, you know I basically spend most of my time writing about two disciplines: drawing (and/or painting, etc) and story telling. The older I get and the more time I spend working at improving at these two things, the more things I think they have in common.

Both are incredibly difficult and both are constantly humbling. In order to do well at either you need to fail constantly and learn from each failure. Every story is different and every drawing is different.

In both areas, people are constantly looking for easy answers, formulas and short cuts.

And in both areas there are none to be had. And trying to find them will lead to cliched and unsatisfying drawings and stories.

The only way I know for sure to make good drawings or good stories is to constantly work at them and rework them and rework them and rework them and rework them until they are as good as you can make them. That's why good stories and good drawings are rare and both are things of great value. Because very few people have the patience, discipline and humility to create great ones.

Here is some simple advice about storytelling from David Mamet's "Bambi vs. Godzilla". He makes the point that storytelling isn't really complicated but it's very hard to do.

This chapter is entitled "Secret Bonus Chapter: The Three Magic Questions". And I have found that storyboarding is, in many ways, constantly answering these three questions in every panel. Sounds overly dramatic, I know, but I mean it. This is the single greatest thing I have ever read about writing and I con only say that, based on my twenty years of storyboarding, all that he says is absolutely true. Anyway, enjoy:

Secret Bonus Chapter: The Three Magic Questions

Here is the long-lost secret of the Incas. Anyone who wants to know how to write drama must learn to apply these questions to to all difficulties. It is not only unnecessary but also impossible to know the answers before setting out on the individual project in question, as there are no stock answers.

The secret of the Incas, then, is like the Torah, beloved of my people, the Jews. We read the Torah, the five books of Moses, every year, in the same order. Every year the meaning of the Torah changes, though the text remains unchanged.

As the writer changes, year to year, his or her perceptions and interests change. At twenty he is interested only in sex, at thirty in sex and money, at forty in money and sex, at sixty in money and validation, et cetera.

No one can write drama without being immersed in the drama. Here's what that means: the writer will and must go through exactly the same process as the antagonist (for what is the antagonist but a creation of the writer?).

The writer may choose to supply stock, genre, or predictable answers to the magic questions, and the drama will be predictable and boring. The writer will have saved himself the agony of indecision, self-doubt - of work, in short - and so, of course, will the protagonist. The audience will view this pseudo-drama much as the graduate views a liberal arts education: "I don't think anything happened, but I'm told I went to college, so, perhaps, I somehow got an education".

All right, you may complain, get to the fairy dust portion of the entertainment and vouchsafe to me the secret of the Incas.

Here it is.

The filmed drama (as any drama) is a succession of scenes. Each scene must end so that the hero is thwarted in pursuit of his goal - so that he, as discussed elsewhere, is forced to go on to the next scene to get what he wants.

If he is forced, the audience, watching his progress, wonders with him, how he will fare in the upcoming scene, as the film is essentially a progression of scenes. To write a successful scene, one must stringently apply and stringently answer the following three questions:

1. Who wants what from whom?
2. What happens if they don't get it?
3. Why now?

That's it. As a writer, your yetzer ha'ra (evil inclination) will do everything in its vast power to dissuade you from asking these questions of your work. You will tell yourself the questions are irrelevant as the scene is "interesting," "meaningful," "revelatory of character," "deeply felt'" and so on; all of these are synonyms for "it stinks on ice".

You may be able to dissuade your yetzer ha'ra by insisting that you were and are a viewer before you were a writer, and that as a writer, these three questions are all you want to know of a scene. (You come late to a film and ask your friend there before you, "What's going on? Who is this guy? What does he want?" and your friend will, as a good dramaturge, explain that the subject of your inquiry (the hero) is the vice president of Bolivia, and he wants to determine where his boss is, as the bad guys are going to ambush him, and if he, our hero vice president, does not extract the info from the reluctant mistress, whom the president has just thrown over, the bad guys will kill his boss and bring down the country.)

1. Who wants what from whom?
2. What happens if they don't get it?
3. Why now?

As one becomes more adept in the use of these invaluable ancient tools, one may, in fact, extend their utility to the level of the actual spoken line and ask of the speech, no doubt beginning, "Jim, when I was young I had a puppy...." "Wait a second, how does this speech help Hernando find out where his boss, the president of Bolivia, is?" And you may, then, be so happy - not with the process but with the results of your assiduous application of these magic questions - that finding the puppy speech wanting in their light, you will throw it to the floor and out of the scene it was just about to ruin.

These magic questions and their worth are not known to any script reader, executive, or producer. They are known and used by few writers. They are, however, part of the unconscious and perpetual understanding of that group who will be judging you and by whose say-so your work will stand or fall: the audience.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

A Picture is Worth...Well, You Know

One of the most basic (and most important precepts) about film making is that the story most be told entirely by the visuals. Meaning that you should be able to watch a movie with the sound turned off and still get everything that's happening on screen and understand the whole film. The great film makers of the past knew this and that's what made their films so great.

Like any basic and irrefutable truth, I find that people often reject it and question why it's important. And it's always hard to articulate why it's important because (to me) the answer is obvious.

People will say "well, we're making a movie with sound. We have dialogue at our disposal. We can just use words to convey our meaning".

What I would answer is that whoever said "A picture is worth a thousand words" had it right.

The problem with words are that words can be cheap and disposable. We don't always pay them a lot of heed. When you're talking to people in your everyday life, do you always catch every single word they say? No, we're frequently distracted by our own thoughts and we don't catch 100% of what people say. The same is true of movies, and if the audience misses a bit of dialogue because the person behind them is coughing or opening a noisy bag of Skittles, you don't want them to be lost for the rest of the movie.

Also words aren't always the truth. When we listen to people talk in real life we run it through our filter, trying to figure out what is the underlying truth about the words they are sharing with us. We know that sometimes people lie to us, and sometimes they are telling the truth from their point of view but they may not know the whole story. There are a million reasons why their words may not be truthful - deliberately and otherwise - but the point is that we never take what people say as the absolute truth because we know it's not.

On the other hand, visuals don't lie. With a picture what you see is what you get.

Sometimes film makers will lie to us with their visuals, based on showing us a false image, or leaving out a key image that makes us interpret the ones before and after it differently, and then revealing the truth to us later with an additional image. And that's always more powerful than just finding out someone used false words with us.

We can remember an image that we saw with perfect clarity for the rest of our lives. But how often do we remember exactly what someone said?

So when I try to explain this concept to people I just say that a story that's told through images has a deep, visceral impact on the psyche of the people watching it because images operate on a much deeper level than words. Obviously, the best movies use both in concert to convey their story. But images are always, always, always more powerful and supercede what the dialogue is telling us.

The biggest reason why people seem to reject the wisdom of this concept is that - like most basic concepts - it's really hard to do. It requires discipline, knowledge and hard work to tell a story through images. And in my experience people will (ironically) go to great lengths to avoid having to use discipline, knowledge and hard work.

Usually if I've gotten this far in my explanation they're still not convinced. So maybe the words of author David Mamet will convince you, instead. From "Bambi vs. Godzilla", page 152:

"The perfect film is the silent film, just as the perfect sequence is the silent sequence. Dialogue is inferior to picture in telling a film story. A picture, first, as we know, is worth a thousand words; the juxtaposition of pictures is geometrically more effective. If a director or writer wants to find out if a scene works, he may remove the dialogue and see if he can still communicate the idea to the audience.

Ancient theological wisdom put it thus: 'Preach Christ constantly - use words if you must.'"

To be honest I'm not really a fan of Mamet's films, but he's written several great books on film and acting that I definitely recommend.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Bill Peet's "Mickey Mouse Club" Articles

Back in the 50s, Disney published called "Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse Club Magazine". Disney story artist Bill Peet wrote and illustrated these articles about the history of train travel for the magazine.

They are interesting because they may be the first published version of his writing, because they were published in 1957 and his first children's book was released in 1959.