Saturday, February 25, 2012

Ball State Reminder and Advice From Jerry Seinfled

I've been busy preparing for my talk at Ball State University this week so I haven't had much time to write posts. But the good news is that I've generated some new material that I will post here after my talk. As a reminder, I'll be talking about how the Story process works at Disney, what qualities make a good story sketch (and story artists), and about the making of the story of "Tangled".

I did an interview with Payne Horning from WCRD (the Ball State Radio station) that will be airing tomorrow morning, for anyone interested.

There's a new preview of my graphic novel here.

We all know how difficult it can be to work on our own projects in our spare time and how easy it is to let our projects fall to the bottom of our priorities and then usually into oblivion. I found this article that suggests a simple technique from Jerry Seinfeld to help provide motivation for working on your project every day. At first it seemed too simple to work, but the more I thought about it the more I realized it sounded pretty effective. Basically his technique is to get a giant year calendar and - for every day you work on your project - you get to put an "X" over that day. That's it! The secret is that, as soon as you have a few days under your belt you'll have a nice string of X's. The longer the chain gets, the more you'll want it to grow, and the more reluctant you'll be to "break the chain". If you focus on keeping the chain going, you'll force yourself to work on your project a little each day, and that, over time, can turn into quite a lot of progress.

The reason I think it'll be effective for me is because - once I take one day off, it becomes easier to take the next day off, and the next, and the next....for me if I can force myself to work every day and see the satisfaction of progress piling up, I'll become even more motivated over time.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Three Rules for an Intriguing Story

Here's another preview image for my graphic novel. You can read the accompanying text if you go here.

I found while I was working on the story that it had three elements that I think make for a good story:

1. A world you'd live in, if you could.

2. Characters you'd hang around with, if you could...

3. ...facing problems you'd never want to face in a million years.

Not every successful story follows these rules, of course, but whenever I see a movie trailer or read a book description that fits these criteria, I know I find myself intrigued by those elements.

We all know how hard it is to work on your own projects and come up with your own stories, so the other good thing about these rules is that, as long as you're going to go through the torture of working on your own thing, at least you'll be spending your time with characters you like and in a world you enjoy being in!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

True Comedy Comes From Character

I don't think any of the people I work with read this stuff, which is good, because I've been talking about the same thing all week and referencing the same cartoon in every meeting, it seems.....

The point I keep making is this: that the biggest laughs always come from watching characters react, think and take action.

At least for me.

Sometimes people in animation use the word "gags" and I try not to use that word myself. It's a little generic and it implies a bunch of jokes that could happen to any character. I prefer humor that's specific to the situation and the characters. I'm not a big fan of jokes that are just strung together, and I think animation really doesn't work well for that kind of thing anyway.

So lately - I don't know why - I keep bringing up the cartoon "Bully for Bugs" as an example of what I mean.

"Bully for Bugs" is a great cartoon and, to me, it's hilarious. But it's not the action or the "gags" that I really laugh at so much. The parts that I really laugh at are the moments where the characters are thinking, processing information and formulating ideas. Nothing entertains me more than watching a character react to some event, take that information in, process it and then come up with a new idea based on the new information they have.

That might sound incredibly dry, but to me - when it's done right - that's the most entertaining thing in the world to watch. And that's really the best way to show a character and a personality on them think and react. Those are type of moments that I remember most in films and the moments that make a character truly memorable and make them feel like real, unique, flesh-and-blood characters.

I just love moments in films where you see characters react and think and their inner thoughts and workings are revealed. Animation does that much better than live action will ever be able to.

Part of the fun of setting up a really strong character in the audience's mind is that then you can also create situations that the audience sees before your character does and the audience now knows the character so well that they already know how the character will react. Then the audience has the fun comedic tension of waiting for the character to realize what they already know and the audience is already imaging how the character will react.

I look for opportunities to create moments like these in every sequence I board.

As an example of a character thinking and how entertaining that can be, here's a great scene where the Bull realizes he's swallowed a gun and it's ended up in his tail. He looks puzzled, then he looks at his horn, then to his tail, tries another test shot....and suddenly he gets what just happened. And then he looks over at Bugs, savoring this moment and anticipating getting the best of Bugs. And then you see Bugs react, as he realizes what this means for him...and on and on, with both characters constantly getting new ideas, formulating new plans and one-upping each other.

The best way to create characters and situations like this is to really see it from their point of view and really do your best to inhabit them and see the world through their eyes - no matter how outlandish or crazy the situation.

After working on "Tangled" for a while there was a point when I felt like I really knew Maximus and knew how he thought and how to draw him. I knew how he'd react in every situation. He wasn't a cartoon horse to me he was a real character that I didn't see as a joke or a clown. I really understood his point of view.
When I boarded the part where Rapunzel tries to get Maximus and Flynn to shake hands and make a truce, I knew Maximus would refuse at first. To Maximus, making a deal to not pursue Flynn would go against his inner sense of justice and what's right. He's sworn to uphold the law and he doesn't take that lightly. And he may like Rapunzel, but that's not nearly enough to convince him to put aside his deeply held principles. So he refuses. In no uncertain terms.


 No way!

Rapunzel's able to talk Flynn into agreeing to shake hands and she looks over to Maximus to see if he'll play along...but still he refuses.

But then she plays the card of asking him very sweetly to do it as a favor because it's her birthday...and this is a curveball Max didn't see coming and (I figured) has no experience with. He's used to operating in a world where cops and criminals use force to get their way and everything is defined in black and white. Being asked to do something in a nice way is a shade of grey that he doesn't have any experience dealing with. Plus, he (probably) has no experience dealing with women. Or gentle manipulation. But he knows enough to realize....he's stuck.

So he'll shake hands....just this once. But he's not going to pretend to like it.

"It's also my birthday...."
"...just so you know."

The end of "Bully for Bugs" actually does become essentially a bunch of "gags" that build up to the bull being blown up, but even then I find myself laughing at it because of the way the bull is reacting to what's happening to him. The look on his face as he sails through the air - helpless - as all this stuff happens around him is great. If you never got to see his face during this part it would just become a bunch of gags without any character involvement, but seeing how he feels about all this as he alternates looking down at the fuse burning beneath him and then off into space as he contemplates what this all means is very funny to me.

Again...that's just me. Maybe you think I'm crazy. But that's the truth about the way I approach boarding humor, and the way I approach boarding characters and how I try to inject them with entertaining personality.

If nothing else, I think we'll all agree: you could do a lot worse than to study Chuck Jones for ideas on how to create great characters and get a ton of entertainment out of them!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

It's 2-12-12: Do Something Audacious and Stupid (I'll Go First)

2-12-12 seemed like a good date to publish the first preview image from my graphic novel, because the story has a lot to do with numbers and dates. I've done five preview images of some of the main characters so I'll post one a week for the next five weeks.

They'll all be posted here.

I'm still a long way from being able to post actual pages, though (maybe I'll aim to launch it on 12-12-12?). This project has become truly overwhelming in size and I can only work on it in the little free time I have. As I've mentioned, I've already put a year and a half of work into my graphic novel and it'll take a lot more work to see it through. It feels like running a marathon in thirty-second installments, and it often feels overwhelming and like a totally foolish thing to have undertaken.

All artistic projects are foolish, of course; in doing anything original and sharing it with the world you're making yourself vulnerable and opening yourself up for ridicule and rejection. In doing your own personal thing, you're sacrificing your precious free time and running a huge risk that all your hard work will lead to nothing. It's a daunting task and that's why almost all projects that are undertaken are abandoned and forgotten and never see the light of day.

There are always many more good reasons not to do something than to do it. I don't have any good reasons to do what I'm doing; I really don't have the time to do it, and I'm not planning on making any money on it, and yet...I've really enjoyed doing it so far and somehow it feels like something I just have to do.

Anyway, if nothing else, maybe my tale of bold and audacious stupidity will inspire you to undertake your own personal journey. We all have something personal that we're dying to do, and I can only assume most of us don't pursue it because we're afraid we'll be ignored, mocked or rejected.

Yet as scary as it is to risk ridicule and suffer the unkind words of others, it seems sadder yet to never take your shot and share that thing with the world that you're dying to share.

Whenever I get discouraged and think that it would be easier to not pursue some foolish path, I think of Patton Oswalt's track from "Werewolves and Lollipops" about how difficult it is to write a movie and stick with it through all the difficulties that come along with such an undertaking. He talks about how whenever he has doubts and wants to abandon a script he's working on, he thinks about a movie that actually got finished called "Death Bed: The Bed That Eats People" (which, yes, is actually a movie that got made, although technically the REAL title is "Death Bed: The Bed That Eats") and wonders about the author of that movie, and how he could have worked through all the doubts he must have had while writing "Death Bed". If you've never heard it, Patton's great routine is on youtube (just search "Death Bed") but be warned: it's got NSFW language.

So in honor of 2-12-12, I hope in some small way I might inspire you to do your own audacious and stupid thing!

Friday, February 10, 2012

Ball State University March 1st

I'll be speaking at Ball State University in Indiana on March 1st and the event is open to the public. Here's the facebook page where you can RSVP and there's a link to where the event will be held.

Most of the talk is about the development of the story of "Tangled"- how the characters and the story changed and evolved through the story process. I'll also be touching briefly on how the story department works at Disney and covering the topic of "What Makes a Good Story Sketch?"

I'm looking forward to meeting the students and faculty of Ball State - it should be a great time!

(I should add that, since much of my talk deals with the making of "Tangled" and how the story developed, if you haven't seen the film, you might not get as much out of it...and also I'll be spoiling the heck out of it for you).

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Write What You.....'re Interested In. And Do Your Research

There's an old saying that, when writing a story, you should "write what you know". The reason is that it gives your work authenticity and won't just be making things up out of thin air. Your work will have a compelling reality to it because it's based on things you're familiar with.

The problem with this conventional wisdom is that it can be limiting. You may not be all that interested in the topics you're already familiar with. So I would change this familiar bit of advice to "write what you're interested in".

Great films and stories always feel authentic and "real" on some level. If your world doesn't feel like a "real" world, then the story feels false and you can't get an audience to connect with the characters and worry about them, feel something for them and fret about how their story will turn out, which is where all the compelling emotion in a film comes from. Even when creating a fantasy world that doesn't exist, it's very important to first understand as much as you can about the world we live in and apply it to the world you create. Because your readers are familiar with the actual world we live in - it's all any of us really know - we use our everyday experiences in the real world as a barometer to judge how real a fantasy world feels. For example, if you have dragons in your story, read up on birds and bats, and dinosaurs that were able to fly, as well as large animals like elephants and whales (and whatever other topics you can think of), and you will find tons of great details that will allow you to make your dragons specific to your story - dragons that are like ones that no one else has ever created. People love that kind of thing and it will make your story memorable, specific and unique. It'll make your fantasy world feel real. And it will make your story come to life and make it compelling in a way it can never be if you're just making things up out of thin air.

So, if you're working on a project of your own, it's very important - and these days, easier than ever - to do your research.

We're living in an amazing age for doing research. The internet has placed an amazingly vast resource at everyone's fingertips. And the fact that there are so many television channels now, like the Discovery channel and the History channel, etc. means that documentaries about a wide variety of topics are being produced like never before.

And when I say the internet, it's not just things like wikipedia that I have found helpful...I constantly use sites like abebooks and alibris to find used and out-of-print books that are not only great help but also available at extremely affordable prices.

For example, here's a photo of just some of the books I've been using for research on my own personal project.

Many of these I was able to get from alibris for a dollar or so. Also, not pictured are the dozen or so books I read on my kindle for research.

I've also found Google Maps to be a great resource. The story I'm working on takes place in a place I've never been. It would be great to visit there but it's not feasible right now. So Google Maps street view is a great option.

I'm old enough that it still blows my mind to be able to type in any place in the world and be able to "walk the streets" by using Google street view (I'm sure there are vast swatches of land to be done yet by Google maps, but so far everything I've needed I've been able to find).

I've you've never tried Google Maps street view, check it out sometime. I know everyone probably knows how to use it already, but just in case you don't know how to do it, here's a quick tutorial:

Go to and type in any address in the search bar( for example, I typed "2100 Riverside Dr., Burbank", the address where I work).

Now, when the search results come up, click the option that says "view in Google Maps" (should always be the first result).

When the map opens up, it'll look something like this:

Here's a closer look at the upper left hand corner. Check out the little orange man I made a red arrow to indicate him). You can grab him with the cursor and drop him anywhere on the map. And if you've searched for a specific address, there'll be an orange "pin" on the map to show you where that specific address is, so you can drop your man there.

That'll go to street view, where you are seeing what the little man would see, if he were standing at that point. Here's a view I see at the end of my commute every day (this is Keystone Drive, Burbank).

Now, when you're in street view, you can use the circle icon at the upper left to rotate. If you click any of the four arrows around the circle, you can look up, down, left or right. And if you hover your cursor over the street, you'll see white arrows that allow you to go down the street or up the street to see what's around you. Here's the last bit of my commute every morning :

So Burbank's a place I know really well and I could research easily, if my story took place there. But it doesn't. So I've used Google maps - not only to check out how the location where my story takes place looks - but also to research details such as how the garbage cans look there, what kinds of trees and plants grow there, how wide the roads are, what kinds of materials the houses are built from, etc. Google maps has allowed me to spend hours immersing myself in the world where my characters have spent their (fictional) lives, and without being able to visit there, I don't know how else I would've figured this stuff out.

I could have just made it up, but for anyone that lives there or has ever visited there, they'd know it was false. And I honestly think it would feel false to every reader - there's no replacement for the authenticity of actually knowing all this stuff.

The hard part about research is knowing how to use the information once you've gotten it. After all, a story isn't a documentary. It's still a work of fiction. In the example of researching dragons I mentioned earlier, unless your idea is just about documenting how dragons might actually work, you probably will never actually articulate everything you've learned about how dragons might actually work within your story. Ideally, your research has provided you with some ideas of how to make your dragons look like they might actually be able to exist and really work, as well as maybe some story ideas about what happens when dragons get sick, what conditions they might be able to breathe fire under, what weaknesses they might have that may allow a hero to defeat them, etc. You want to use your research to make your world feel more authentic and real. Research is supposed to give you more story ideas and open up new possibilities that you've never thought about. What you don't want is to feel overwhelmed and overburdened by the research. Doing research may show you that one or more of your ideas actually won't work, which can be discouraging, but the encouraging part is that it should open up many new alternatives to explore instead.

Also, there will always be a moment where your research contradicts what you're trying to do with the story, and you'll have to make a decision as to whether you're going to re-think your story or just ignore that part of the research. There's no story in the world that is 100% truthful and real to life. After all, like I said, a story isn't a documentary. At some point it departs from reality and enters the world of fiction.

I like to think of it as an 80/20 rule. In general, if your story is about 80% accurate I think you can fudge the other 20% (just a rule of thumb - every story is different).

Take "Raiders of the Lost Ark", for example. There's a lot of fictional things in the movie, but all the inspiration for the story and a lot of the details are grounded in reality. The work Indiana Jones does as an archaeologist is definitely based in reality - in the beginning we see him exploring a temple in a South American temple. There are temples in South America, obviously, and a lot of the details of how the temple looks and  works are probably based in reality. It's the extra details - like Jones's comrades betraying him, the bad guys who are on his trail, and the details of his narrow escape, as well as the layer Jones brings to it with his personality and character, that lift it beyond documentary and into an amazing work of fiction. But the realistic details give it a grounded sense that makes it feel real and make us sit on the edge of our seat as we watch his narrow escapes. If the temple felt like a phony, made up place, none of this would work.

Other details of the story are also definitely grounded in reality: there was an Ark of the Covenant, rumored to have mythical powers; it was believed by many to be hidden somewhere in the Middle East; Hitler did have an interest in the occult and was looking for items like that during the second world war, etc.

Chances are there's never been an archaeologist who was exactly like Indiana Jones or did things the way he did....but the realistic framework of the story and locales enable the audience to buy the more fantastic elements of the story.

There are a few pitfalls that I see people fall into when they're in the research phase. The biggest problem with research is that it can be hard to know when to stop researching and actually get to work. There's always more research to do than can realistically be done, and some people just stay in "research mode" forever. This can be tempting because writing is terribly hard work involving constant decisions and wrestling with all the difficult things that writing a story involves. Research can be more fun because it isn't usually as hard as writing is - you're just taking in information (and hopefully interesting information at that). Hopefully you'll find a spot where you can start working and still keep doing research at the same time. For me, the way to balance this is to always be thinking about your story while you're doing the research - force yourself to jot down story and character ideas at the same time you're taking notes for your research. Make sure there's cross-pollination between the two.

The other problem I see is that people do their research, and then set it aside and start working on their story, and the two processes don't affect each other - the research doesn't make any impact on the story. If the research works properly, it should spark a ton of story ideas and make you see your characters in a new light. If you find that the research isn't having an affect on your story, I'd say sit back and take another look at the area you're researching...maybe you're on the wrong path and you should try looking at the subject from another angle, or research a different area.

Or maybe your story just isn't right and needs to be shifted in a way that relates to the research. Maybe your characters and story just aren't the right ones for the world you're interested in.

Or maybe you just have to keep plugging away on the path you're on and the connections will become clear later.

I know this might all seem frustratingly vague, but everyone (and every project) works differently, and always remember that every project explores its share of dead ends and goes in circles for a time. If you keep pushing, you'll find a way forward, and at the same time - trust me - nobody ever feels like their story is 100% solid and figured out (unless they're fooling themselves). Writing a story is a constant process of questioning what you've done, backtracking, re-thinking and re-writing. That's the only way to make it better! And what seem like a dead end today may come back and inform the story at a later point.

The other problem with research is that - let's face it - to us artists, doing all this research is counter-intuitive. For me personally, I started my own personal project as a way to get myself to draw in my free time because I don't really draw at work anymore. But as I got more and more into my story I had to do more and more research....when what I really wanted to do was start drawing! But at the same time I knew all that drawing would be meaningless without the research to make it feel authentic.

So that's why my advice to not necessarily to write about what you know, but what you're interested in. That way, doing the research will interest you and it won't turn into a boring chore that you have to wade through. As we all know, writing a story is incredibly hard and can be tedious at the best of times. Most stories get abandoned at some point, so give yourself the best chance you can to succeed and stick with it by picking a world to research that you'll stay interested in for the long haul.

Of course, there's always the other way to do it: the approach Steve Purcell took, in "Sam and Max: Freelance Police".