Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Expanding Your Mental Toolbox

I apologize for letting so much time pass since my last post. I've been spending all my meager spare time working on my own project, as well as writing and re-writing long-winded blog posts that aren't ready to be published yet. So, in the future, inbetween these longer posts I will make an effort to create smaller posts in an effort to update things around here more often!

When I was animating at Disney long ago, after your first attempt at animating a scene, you would show your animated scenes to the Supervising Animator of whatever character you were working on. You'd give them your stack of drawings, and they would flip through the scene and put your drawings on their animation desk so they could draw over your drawings and give you some instruction while improving the scene.

When I got into Story, things were very different. Nobody draws over your sketches in story. In a story meeting or a hallway conversation, a director or another Story Artist might sometimes draw a sketch to explain an idea they have or to illustrate what they think could be better about a certain pose or expression you've drawn, but storyboarding isn't about the exact precision of the drawings as much as it's about big ideas, story structure, entertainment, staging, cutting, pacing and acting. So we almost always talk in broader terms than just what could be improved in a single sketch. And we don't go over each other's drawings, we just pitch to each other in groups and talk about what's working and what's not working and could be improved in a bigger, more general sense.

So it's interesting for me to compare the two ways of learning and improving. Thinking back to when I was first starting in Story, the biggest steps in learning I made weren't because someone showed me how to improve something, it was because of what people talked about in story sessions. After a storyboard pitch, somebody would say that they felt a sequence was missing a certain something, and sometimes it would be an element that I never would have considered putting into the sequence. It had just never occurred to me.

For example, after someone pitched an action sequence, someone would say something along the lines of, "I just feel like this sequence could have a bigger sense of scale", and suddenly you realized that the idea of "scale" wasn't a concept that you usually considered when you were boarding a sequence. But it should be. And the next time you worked on a sequence, you considered the idea of scale and all that it implies.

Storyboarding is often compared to juggling a lot of different balls or spinning a lot of different plates. There are a ton of things to consider and manage while trying to find the right way to board each sequence. And every time I'd hear what someone felt was lacking in a pitch or a story, and it was an angle I hadn't been considering before, it was like another ball got added to my list of things to juggle.

Joe Ranft did this illustration once of what it feels like to board a sequence. He used juggling as a metaphor for how a board artist needs to balance several considerations at once.

So to mix could also look at each of these considerations as a different "tool" for your toolbox of how to build a sequence.

So this idea of hearing different opinions and getting a peek into what other people think, and incorporating that into my mental toolbox has always been very exciting to me and seems to be a very effective way to learn.

 The good news is that you don't have to work in the Story department at a major animation studio to have this kind of experience.

I see a lot of films. I think it's important for every Story Artist to do this. The thing is, as we all know, not every movie is a masterpiece. So, yeah, I end up seeing a lot of mediocre movies. And sometimes I get almost as excited about seeing an average movie as I do about seeing a really good movie. For this, I take a certain amount of guff from people.

But the thing I get out of a movie that doesn't work is a great opportunity to identify exactly what didn't work and challenge myself to figure out how I would fix it. Don't get me wrong, I love great movies. Obviously. We all do. And we learn a lot from them. But a movie that almost works can be just as much of a learning experience because you can see which notes are played just right and which ones are sour, and how they could be better.

I find that this is another great exercise for expanding my "mental toolbox". Anytime you can look at a work of art and ask yourself what works and what doesn't work, you're teaching yourself in a really active way that sharpens your skills and will stick with you way longer than if a teacher just told you these things.

Another way I like to compare my opinions to those of others and expand my mental toolbox is by reading reviews of movies. If I like a movie, I'll read the negative reviews and figure out what faults I didn't find with the film that the critics did. If I don't like a movie, I'll read the positive reviews and try to see the other side. It's always interesting and informative.

Also, if you're interested in this method of listening to other opinions and measuring and weighing them against yours, try listening to podcasts. This is going to sound like hyperbole, but I am really amazed at how much incredible information is now at our fingertips--for free--in the form of podcasts.

There are many screenwriting and film making podcasts that I find interesting. There are also great podcasts about comic books, writing, name it. There are also podcasts for every other subject you can think of. In addition, I like general information ones that cover a different topic every podcast. It's exposed me to interesting subjects that I never would have heard about otherwise.

If you're interested in exploring the world of podcasts, they are well organized within iTunes (or within an App that sorts them), so if you're interested in a topic, it's easy to find the most popular ones on that subject. I don't want to recommend any, because--just as I like to read reviews that are contrary to my opinions--I listen to quite a few podcasts where I totally disagree with the opinions expressed within them. Sometimes I get quite passionate about how much my opinions are at odds with the ones they espouse! So I can't say there's any one podcast out there that I agree with all the time and endorse completely (and if there were, I'm not sure what the point of listening to it would be).

I find all these techniques helpful for expanding my "mental toolbox". When I hear strong opinions about certain topics, I weigh those opinions against my own. It helps me to clarify and solidify my opinions, and it helps me test whether my point of view is valid, or whether there's another perspective that I haven't considered yet.

Too often, I think artists (and people in general) like to be surrounded by opinions that are identical to theirs. I think it brings people comfort to think that they're "right" because everyone around them agrees with what they think. But I think that's a sign of insecurity. If you're truly secure in your opinions, I think you enjoy the opportunity to test your perspectives against those of other people and you welcome the chance to change and alter your opinions as you're exposed to new ideas and ways of thinking.

I've worked as a professional artist for almost 20 years, and I can sincerely say that if there's one thing that can lead an artist to stagnate and stop improving, it's becoming rigid and inflexible in your opinions and ways of working. The best artists, in my experience, are always open to new ideas and know that they still have a lot to discover and learn.


Ignacio Ochoa said...

Terrific post!!
Thanks so much Mark. I love this blog by this kind of post. You know, I´m from Argentina, here we speak in spanish. I understand some of english but to me is more easy read english that listen english. Then, your typed post are like podcasts for me. I hear your voice, although I never really heard it. Thanks to write!!

Howard Tayler said...

Great post, Mark. Thank you! As a writer-illustrator I needed to hear this, or at least be reminded of it.

For what it's worth, I'm glad you take the time to write LONG, because some of this stuff doesn't distill well into soundbites. So continue to take your time with these. We'll keep reading.

Jonah Sidhom said...

I actually used to go to RottenTomatoes to read what all the 'Top Critics' had to say about really bad films. It was extremely informative for me.

Great post!

Ronan McDermott said...

Great post. It is very interesting to read posts like this. Thanks for sharing.

Purna said...

I find myself the luckiest person on earth,every time, after reading each and every post of this blog. And wait like a thirsty crow for your next post. I understand your busy schedule, but my situation is like a cranky baby who will not stop crying unless she gets what she wants. Sorry, for my bad english and bad comparison.. but all I wanted to say is .., this blog is my inspiration in absolute sense. Thanks a ton.

TheZealot said...

Write as often as you will. The blog posts are always edifying, and that's something to wait for, and something I look forward to. God knows Americans wait for so little, these days!
Love this latest post!

mark kennedy said...

Thanks for all the nice comments, everyone! Glad you enjoyed the post.

Sandy said...

Great post, that made me think and discover new tools of improve myself in a personnal way that I had never thought before.

Just the paragraph of insecurity to only hear and accept the same opinions as yours ... Wow, so true.
I want to remember this for future.

Thanks for your amazing posts :)

Ali Shadle said...

Hey Mark,
I'm a young chick that thinks she has a great story. The character I created is how I express myself when I have a bad perspective on life. I'm trying to create a 45 second "sizzle" animation of my story.

I know you're probably extremely busy, but I follow your blog. Each new post is like candy to me.. I gotta have it! I was wondering if you consulted on people's stories, etc. I don't have much money but I'd be MORE than willing to pay you. I know you are extremely sought after with Hunger Games, etc.

I live in Santa Monica. I've worked at HBO and recently just interviewed at Marvel. However, I hate both of those ideas and would much rather write and get me feelings out.

Please let me know if you consult on things. You can find me on facebook at or linkedin at

Thank you,
Ali Shadle

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