Feb 17, 2006
On story: Pitching
Grab yourself a pointer and step right up...
The story artist presents his work standing alone in front of a room filled with people, armed with only a pointer. This is it, the big moment: finally you get to present your version of a sequence to your peers, directors and everyone else there that's concerned with the production. You've been working more or less alone up to this point, and no one but you is responsible for how you're going to pitch this scene and get it over to your audience.
It can be nerve-wracking, but often as not it's exhilarating--the big payoff for hours of work done in solitude. A chance to flex your showmanship as you try and forget any self-consciousness about the drawings you've done and whether this thing works or not. Of course, you hope it does--you believe it does, and you're going to prove it as you pitch it.
The pitch is crucially important to the process of animated filmmaking. This process of working out the kinks and finding the gems in a story was pioneered by--who else?--Walt Disney, to make his shorts better, and eventually to tell long-form, feature length stories, beginning with "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs". Walt himself must have been one of the best pitch artists that ever was, according to eyewitnesses the night he held a core group spellbound with his one-man presentation of the Snow White story--sans drawings. But the artists he worked with weren't there to take notes only--they were expected and encouraged to give Walt back big returns on his initial inspiration. The drawings they did, sequence by sequence, were pinned up and held to the most severe scrutiny--of Walt, but also of everyone else who might have a better idea, or a thought on why something wasn't working. Other studios, one by one (often as the result of artists leaving Disney's to go elsewhere, like Shamus Culhane) picked up on the Disney system of working out the story on boards. But that's all decades ago. Are pitches still necessary? Don't we have everything worked out so smoothly by this age that we can skip or skimp on that step completely?
Even armed with all the bells and whistles of current animation technology, those tools can't do anything on their own. They sit, inanimate, waiting not only for skilled artists to operate them, but more importantly for good ideas worth doing. The story crew's function isn't just illustrating, it's conceiving, and each and every scene must be forced in turn to run the gauntlet, sink or swim, live or die on the reactions of people whose job is to know what's needed. The essential process of story remains the same today as it was over 70 years ago, yes. That's for no other reason than that it works so well. It isn't nostalgia--it's just a great system. And at its best, it's also the perfect meritocracy. A great idea is a great idea, and the stronger the crew, the more welcome those ideas are, from everyone in the room. It's amazing how well a group can work together when things gel and everyone's more or less in sync; I've been in situations where my own work was slowly being rethought in front of me(meaning I'd soon be ditching a few hundred panels I'd just sweated over), while I stood in front of it, still clutching my pointer as Lady MacBeth does her washcloth--but rather than fainting, I'd find myself getting truly excited about the possibilities for an even better scene that was possible.
That's how it's all supposed to work, mind you. Naturally all artists have healthy egos, take pride in their work and ideas, and want them to succeed rather than otherwise. I and every story artist I know have also had plenty of those times where a quick trip out the window without benefit of parachute seemed a happy alternative to remaining in the room one second longer--that's only normal, too.
But the weird, virtually magical thing often happens where suddenly the individual drawings don't matter quite so much, because the new idea or gag or business is so good, and you feel that--that's right! It has to be more like that! If you're still thinking mournfully of what a waste the now obsolete drawings are, you're missing the point--or the boat. It often seems our jobs as story artists is to produce reams of recyclables, and wear down a thousand prismacolors, all in the pursuit of something not fully tangible to any one of us alone, but very possible for the group: an entire film, start to finish, with a good story and characters that we care about, that make some sense, that just plain entertains.
The pitch is a vaudeville show, a shooting gallery, a juggling act, a ghost story around a campfire--with drawings. It's the ultimate low-tech, interactive experience, with roots that go back to most of us sitting in bed listening to out parents read us Dr. Seuss or Goodnight Moon. If we can conjure a movie for a few minutes with our 2D drawings and our voices--the fluorescent lights of a conference room notwithstanding--and get whatever we've come up with past all our colleagues and meet with their approval--all gimlet-eyed pros, well, then we might have accomplished something. But whether by critical comments from the rest of the crew, or by their tacit approval in the form of laughs or smiles, it's never accomplished alone. The listener has as much sway as the speaker. The audience in the person of the crew talks back to the screen, and questions, complains, approves, or challenges--and the screen in the person of the story artist has to reply. Everyone has the same goal: to make the story a movie, and to make it better.
That's why it's such a great system, and why it still works.