Apr 21, 2006
What do Story Artists Do?
Bill Peet succeeds with his interpretations of "Song of the South"(from billpeet.net)
I've been asked this question several times lately--and it's also come up unbidden from the recesses of my noggin in response to various recent events.
So, what's the job? What is it, ideally? What is it that we all hope to do when we start out in this business?
I'm thinking of feature films, by which I mean a long format narrative; a short, whether for television or something else, is a special and different nut to crack, taking no less skill, but often using different storytelling techniques.
So, what is the job we do?
Obviously it involves drawing--lots and lots of sequential drawing. To draw clearly is paramount to get ideas across. We want and strive to draw well, even beautifully, to be really strong draughtsmen. We sweat and we grind down pencils and felt tips getting the panel exactly as we want it.
There's plenty to say about the pursuit of good drawings to make great sequences, but what being a story person really means is something that's not hostage to drawing alone at all: it means to be a storyteller. That's something that each one of us can do dynamically, even without making any drawings at all.
Too often, looked upon as "artists", we are somehow lost in the filmmaking stew as writers--and make no mistake, the best story people are writers, first and last. We write dialogue as well as draw, but most importantly we write the sequence. That's part of the job, as it's best performed.
It doesn't always work that way, just 99% of the time; when an animated film is pre-scripted, obviously a story crew then interprets the script, rather than having a looser outline to construct from. There are specific examples I've cited before where such approaches have resulted in excellent films.
I should also say here that I have the highest respect for screenwriters--all my seminal influences in film, from the team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger to Preston Sturges to Billy Wilder(with Brackett and Diamond) to Ben Hecht and Leigh Brackett(she of the great collaborations with Howard Hawks), are paragons of elegant and exciting screenwriting.
It's a ineffably special craft--but the point I'd like to emphasize is that so is the job of the animation story artist; no less important, no less crucial--and distinct from the particular challenges of live action.
I think that generally story people aren't perceived as writers, but the fact is that when they have been in the business for years, they learn how to tell a film story(or sink trying), and the rhythm of what's called the film language gets into their unconscious as insidiously and firmly as in any director's or live action screenwriter's. Story artists see and think in scenes, in the bits and glimpses of a greater narrative, always keeping in mind(as they must)where the story is coming from and where it's going.
It's an interesting peculiarity of our craft that we story artists live our characters probably to an even greater extent than many other types of writers, as we have to draw their emotions and actions on the screen. We manipulate our actors as a live action director could only dream of doing. It's total control, and it's a huge responsibility. That's the excitement as well as the burden of it--and when it pays off, it's fantastic.
All of us in animation have much to learn about our business, filmmaking. More than is probably possible in a lifetime--even if the medium is barely a hundred years old. But as even the most newly-minted story artist is in fact creating the film, shot by shot, we also have much to offer the rest of the filmmaking world from our experience. Is there anyone who'd doubt that, say Ward Kimball could have taught a thing or two about filmmaking to Hawks, or Sturges, or Wilder? Not me. maybe John Ford wouldn't sit still for it, but he gets a pass. I'm sure Orson Welles would have been happy to have sat at the feet of Bob Clampett for an hour as well as at the side of the great producer(and fellow RKO associate) Walt Disney himself. There's a reason Frank Tashlin was able to direct a great feature comedy so easily; he'd already done animation.
It's far from a job where we "just draw". That's not it at all...or it shouldn't be. Bill Peet, Joe Ranft, Brenda Chapman, Gary Trousdale, Dave Smith, Conrad Vernon, Dick Huemer, Ed Gombert, Teddy Newton, Mark Andrews, Mark Kennedy, Ted Sears, Jill Culton, Kelly Asbury, and a host of others did and do have an arsenal of which drawing is but one part. All of them used (and continue to use) their minds as well, and not just in composing pictures. That's the best, most fruitful expression of the job and the person who fills it.
A friend who was on the de riguer CalArts tour of Disney feature animation with me and the rest of the class remembered a moment where we were all crowded into a room with a veteran story artist. He held up a sheaf of paper: "This is the script. We get it, we read it, and then we--"
He tossed it into the round file nearby.
"It's just a starting point. Then the real work starts".
Labels: Story in Animation