Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Transformation, Emotion, SitComs and Comic Book Storytelling

I am no expert on comic books, so bear with me on this topic. You may think I'm way, way off, and maybe I am. But when I heard that DC comics killed one of their major characters today (slight NSFW language), it inspired me to write about some of my thoughts on comic books and the stories they tell.

Transformation = Emotion

When you get any kind of emotional rush out of watching a movie - or even any kind of satisfaction from watching one - it's almost always because there's some element of transformation.

Based entirely on my unscientific approach, and off the top of my head, I'd say that in most films, this usually takes one of three forms:

The main character starts out in an unfulfilled state, living an incomplete life. By the end of the movie, they have been transformed and now live a complete, fulfilling life (this is the most common type of "character arc" and the vast majority of films follow this model).

or...the main character is a fulfilled, morally centered person who lives in a world that is corrupt or unbalanced. By the end of the story, the main character hasn't changed, but they have transformed the world around them and turned it into a better place (this type is sometimes known as a "traveling angel story"). Sometimes the transformative person is the main character, or sometimes the main character is more of an unfulfilled character living in this broken world, and they meet the transformative agent at some point. Then we see the change in the world through this character's perspective ("Mary Poppins" and "Tangled" both fit into this type of category).

Then there's the mirror, tragic version of the first type: we meet a vibrant, fulfilled person that is living a balanced life. By the end of the film, they are a twisted, hollow, corrupted version of what they were at the beginning. This type of downer ending is pretty rare in Hollywood films, of course, with (SPOILER ALERT) "The Godfather" being a pretty famous example of this type of character arc.

I'm no psychological expert on why seeing characters change gives us a rush of emotion. I'm sure this has been written about to death somewhere else already. But if I had to guess, I think change is one of the hardest parts of life. It's very hard to change our lives. It's hard to accept the constant changes that life brings. So I think change has a lot of emotion tied to it, and - knowing how hard it is to change our lives for the better - when we see someone on screen totally change their lives from bad to good, we feel a rush of emotion because it gives us hope and inspiration that we can do the same in our own lives.

So most movies are all about transformation, and that's where the satisfaction and emotion comes from when watching a film that does it well. And the change has to be irrevocable and lasting: it should never be a change that can be undone easily. Otherwise, it wasn't really that tough to achieve and it's not really that dramatic.

Hour-long dramatic TV shows embrace this concept as well. TV series have a wider ability to do big and small changes within the characters: shows like "Lost" or "The Walking Dead" can affect changes to the characters within each episode, as well as over the course of a season, or over an entire series. The episodes are meant to be watched in order, obviously, and the revelations and changes build on top of each other as the show progresses and the characters go through many transformations, and the audience learns deeper and deeper truths about the characters.

Comedic Television is a Different Story

Sitcoms (or half-hour comedic shows) work differently.

Traditionally, sitcoms don't give their characters transformational arcs within episodes because they're meant to be watched differently. Sitcoms - unlike dramas - are not meant to be emotional. They're supposed to be funny. And while change is dramatic, it's definitely not funny.

Also, sitcoms are not meant to be seen in order. Many times sitcoms that run long enough become syndicated, which means they are re-run in random order. So if the characters are changing and transforming in each episode, it'll be confusing to any viewer that is seeing the episodes for the first time and trying to figure out and track who the characters are. The characters will be inconsistent from episode to episode and confusing.

Also, sitcoms are usually meant to last as long as they can and generate as many episodes as possible, whereas dramas usually have some sort of predetermined scope of how long the story will last and where it will end up. So keeping the characters the same helps sitcom writers churn out consistent episodes for an indefinite length of time.

Also, I think a big part of comedy is knowing who a character is and watching them fulfill your expectations as they act out their same comedic foible over and over again, without learning anything from their misadventures. If Homer Simpson wakes up one day and realizes that he's an idiot, that's not funny....that's tragic and sad.

So if we accept this idea that irrevocable change is dramatic and that this is where emotion comes from in most stories...we can learn a lot by looking at comic books through this lens.

Comic Books and Emotional Stories

The comic book industry is in a tough spot, for several reasons.

The well-known superheroes that are featured in the most popular comic books were all created a long time ago. This is really a unique situation: I can't think of an equivalent model in any other art form. Superman was created in 1938, Batman a year later. Nobody listens to the type of music that was popular in 1938, and nobody goes to see movies that are like the ones that were made in 1939. But there are still many comics published that are based on characters that were created back then. Most art forms change and grow quite a bit over time as artists search for new forms and ways of working. In some ways, comic books have stayed the same for almost a century.

Since their creation, comics have had to contend with more and more competition for their audience. More movies compete for the same viewers with every passing year, as do more TV shows, more video games, etc. And these art forms are always trying to explore more and more sophisticated and effective ways of story telling, in order to attract a bigger audience and give that audience a more satisfying and emotional experience.

Comic books have tried to do this too, and comic book creators know that creating change within their character's lives is a good way to create drama and emotion, as well as create stories that feel more sophisticated and nuanced as audiences become more used to that type of storytelling.

But the problem is that their characters also have elements of the sitcom model: over the years, the readers have fallen in love with the characters for who they are, and people want these characters to retain their inherent characteristics. So you can't change Batman, Superman, Daredevil, Wonder Woman, Captain America or any other beloved comic book character without running the risk of altering what people loved about the character in the first place and losing the audience out of frustration.

So it seems to me that comic book creators have tried to have it both ways: they want to be able to change the characters and therefore create emotional stories, as well as keep the characters exactly the same from issue to issue. So one solution they've tried is to split the realities that these characters inhabit into different universes, where different versions of the beloved heroes undergo different transformations and experience different emotional journeys, while they stay the same in other universes.

Also, comics have created a tradition of undoing any kind of change that happens. Nothing is ever permanent. When a character dies, they can always be brought back to life. Even origin stories are rewritten and reshaped from time to time.

But there's a real problem with change that can be undone easily, or is undercut by being a change that happens in just one of many universes.

I think change is only emotional when it's truly irrevocable and cannot be undone. Nobody is ever going to feel emotional about a character dying when they know that character can (and will be) revived in the near future. That type of change becomes meaningless, and holds no dramatic weight. And it seems like cheating. You're not really committing to real change within your characters.

And yet, if DC and Marvel tried to invent new characters every few years, and kept changing their characters as they tell stories about how they change and grow, I don't know how the core audience would react. They'd probably demand the return of the characters that they know and love. So I don't know what the answer is.

And I'm sure that many people will write and tell me about graphic novels and comic books that have told emotional stories successfully that I just don't know about (I think "Maus" was certainly powerful in it's own way and I think Art Spiegelman definitely did a great job at pushing the boundaries of what types of stories can be told within the form. Another favorite of mine is "Jew Gangster", by Joe Kubert, which involves a character that transforms and changes). As I said, I'm no definitive expert on every comic book. Forgive me the gaps in my knowledge.

Anyway, as I've said in previous posts, there are some elements of comic books that I would change if I was to create my own. And, when I decided to do so, that's one of the biggest deciding factors in how I decided what type of story to tell: I wanted my tale to involve characters that undergo real change and real emotion, if possible. That's what we try to do at Disney as we create movies, and I think it could work really well in comic books as well. If comic books could somehow figure out a way to deliver that type of narrative, I think they would be a more emotional and satisfying experience to read.

For me, anyway.

So I've tried to craft a story where the characters underwent significant and irrevocable change, and when the story is over, their lives will never ever be the same. Will I be successful? I don't know. But if nothing else, I hope to end up with a better understanding of what can be done in the comic book form, and what works and what doesn't, and how to deliver emotion through that type of storytelling.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Detail Helps Draw the Eye

This is a panel from the "Prince Valiant" comic book that was available on Free Comic Book Day. It caught my eye because it's a good example of the way I like to use detail in drawing.

There's a good balance of empty areas and areas with detail, and I think the contrast makes for a pleasing drawing (contrast is always a useful method for creating a good illustration). And the artist also was very smart about where the detail was placed. Detail will always draw the eye in and encourage it to linger in an area, while the eye tends to flow through big empty areas quickly and easily. And the story content of the panel is that the pirates on the boat are looking at the town in the distance longingly because they want to plunder it, but their captain won't allow them to. So the artist wants to call attention to both the men on the ship and the town in the distance. To get the viewer to look in the right places, detail is used for the hills above the town, and for the ocean near the men on the ship. In both cases, the detail isn't exactly on the focal points, but instead, very near to them. So you don't always have to put the detail on the exact focal point. Somewhere nearby can do the job just as well.

And in the areas of the picture that the artist doesn't want you to dwell on--like the rocks in the ocean, or the hills on the right side of the composition--the artist uses detail sparingly or not at all.

I have met people that have said that they feel the more detail a drawing has, the better a drawing it is. That's certainly a valid opinion. And there are some comic book artists that tend to use detail on every area equally when they draw panels. That's a stylistic choice, and there's nothing wrong with doing that, but personally I like it when an artist controls my eye and leads it to where he wants it to go, and doesn't confuse me about what is supposed to be important and what isn't necessary to focus on. I think the best artists are storytellers that use every trick they have to help tell the story in the clearest and strongest way possible. So keep in mind that detail can help organize your drawings and attract the viewer's eye where you want it to go, and use that method to help tell the story you're trying to tell.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Create The Thing You Want To Exist In The World

So I've been working on my own project outside of Disney for quite a while. In July, I will have put three years into it already. I've been thinking a bit about personal projects and what I think are important considerations to think about before undertaking one. So this is the first in a series about things to consider when planning a personal project.

Every one of us is all too familiar with the life cycle of creative endeavors; countless personal projects are started with a ton of passion and the best of intentions, but are abandoned at some point along the way and never completed. Sometimes it's simply because the passion burns out. Passion is, by its very nature, a powerful but ultimately short-lived phenomenon. Sometimes other priorities take over your life and the project doesn't seem important anymore. Sometimes time just passes and you end up with a new perspective on your project, and what seemed like a great idea a while ago just seems silly now or not worth pursuing anymore.

I can't speak for how anyone else is able to maintain their passion and stamina while working on their own personal project, but the single biggest factor that's enabled me to stick with my project is a concept that I didn't invent, and I wasn't even aware of back when I started working on my endeavor. I've heard other people talk about this idea since I began my project, and once I heard people discussing this concept, I realized that I been following this principle all along.

Basically, the concept is: Create the thing you want to exist in the world.

This is also the reason that I started this blog. Back before I started this thing, I was constantly searching for a website where someone would talk about drawing, writing, film and storyboarding...all the stuff I was passionate about. I was searching and searching for a place where someone else was wrestling with all the stuff I struggle with and talking about it. And then I just started writing stuff down, mostly in the hope that it would inspire others to start doing the same.

Anyway, my personal project was a similar story. I began working on a graphic novel three years ago, and although I didn't realize it at the time, what initially got me going on the project was the desire to create something that I really wanted to exist in the world.

Here's the backstory: I've always really, really wanted to love comic books. Comic books are stories told with visuals, which is similar to storyboarding and film, and should be right up my alley. Many of the people I work with are big comic book fans, and they're all super smart and amazing artists, so naturally I figured I was just missing something. I didn't walk into comic book stores very often, but when I did, I always really wanted to buy something. But most times I'd look and look, and in the end nothing would really catch my imagination, and I'd leave empty handed and disappointed.

So over the years, I formed a foggy idea of what I wished comic books were...but weren't. And those things--and my burning desire to want to love comic books--eventually became so strong in my mind that it drove me to start on my journey to create the thing that I wanted to exist in the world.

So ask yourself what is missing in the world that you'd desperately like to see. What kind of movie do you wish was being made these days? What kind of book do you wish you could read? What kind of music do you wish you could listen to? If you feel that way, it's certain there are others out there that feel that way too. And by hanging onto that desire to see that element out in the world, you can sustain yourself through the tough times that come along with trying to create anything that's original, fresh and inspired.

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.