Sep 29, 2006

The Myth of 'Pretty'

For the fresh, aspiring animation artist story is a mystery, loaded with questions. How should the panels look? How finished off and detailed must they be? And--here's one I've been asked many times, and wondered myself as a kid--how long is it supposed to take to draw each panel? It's as if there's a set average all professionals meet. Who knew?

The answers to those questions can be surprising. You start out, stumbling, learning as you go, picking up what you need, hoping you're doing it "right"--and even after some time in the business, you can still have an epiphany about the craft. I had one a long time ago, about what I'll call pretty drawings.

I was walking down the hall at work, and passed by a recently pitched story sequence. The drawings were pinned to the board, leaning against the wall waiting to be sent to the editorial department. I stopped and looked it over. The ideas were funny, but I was surprised by how raw some of the drawings looked. They weren't what anyone would call "pretty"; they had no background to speak of, seemed a mass of lines, and were hardly recognizable as the characters. At first look, nothing slick or attractive or special about them. This stood out to me at that moment in stark contrast to many of the boards I'd seen up til then.

Keep in mind that the walls of any story department are lined end to end with boards covered in drawings, many with really gorgeous displays of draughtsmanship--rendered volumetrically, loaded with mood, eye-popping. Stuff you stand in awe of and gape at. I was immediately attracted to these panels. I envied them and admired them and felt challenged and crestfallen and inspired by them. I'd sneakily pull them down and xerox them. I'd think of them as gauntlets at my feet. I'd ponder the technique used by this or that artist--should I stay with the prismacolor? Go for that brush pen? Color somewhere? No? What? If I was especially stuck, I'd think grimly that the story about Fred Moore needing his special particular pencil before he could start a scene and think it wasn't so cute and hilarious as all that, after all.

So upon looking at these particular drawings on this board, seemingly tossed off with a marker, I was somewhat dismissive. The thought likely crossed my mind that it could have been drawn better. It wasn't too long afterwards that I saw the same drawings on the story reel. And I really learned something.

What I learned seeing the drawings up on the screen in sequence was this: the un-pretty "mass of lines" worked unerringly from shot to shot; the acting and attitude was clear and the gags--which sprung from personality, always a huge plus--landed pow! right on the nose. It was clever, fast-moving and there wasn't a damn thing I'd want to change. Anyone would have been nuts to change it. Redrawing the panels would have been the very definition of gilding a lily: pointless. I should "toss off" a neat little sequence that read that well! I'd completely misjudged the artwork.

This may all seem obvious, but the impression this realization made on me then has stayed with me. Those boards proved to me that I was sometimes missing the forest for the individual twig. I had, without thinking, often been judging the panels I saw based on how "well" they were drawn, in a conventional sense, not always(as I should have)as a tiny bit of a scene, a moment from here to there with its own set of problems that might be solved without the use of anything remotely fancy.
I'm most definitely not saying that the drawing skill doesn't matter--far from it. Every artist handles things differently, but they aim to always improve because just as it matters for an animator, the better your drawing chops=the better your ability to do anything your imagination requires you to do in a storyboard.
I still swoon over the sheer graphic beauty--but I'm cured, forever I think, of being a bit of an unconscious snob as regards how a panel is "supposed" to look. Prettiness alone means nothing. Getting hung up on the bark of a tree or the slickness of a line may not help get the sequence over to the audience, and if it doesn't, it's a bomb. With some exceptions, it's secondary at best, and always the means to an end.

Story artists, as has been said over and over, can't afford to get precious with their individual work anyway--often as not it ends up in a box or a wastebasket, and it's virtually never seen by the public we are trying to entertain...that's the task of the animators. But we are trying to get the story up there, and it never hurts to remember there are a hundred thousand ways to do it, but the best way is the way that works. The most important thing, usually, is: is it clear? Is it funny/sad/moving/mysterious/alive? The great advantage feature animation has over television is the comittment of time, money (which is what time requires) and the freedom of artists to tell stories without being required to make each story panel a mini-layout or cel setup. That's the mark of a project set in stone, not the sort of film that usually has a chance to evolve and develop and be plussed and added to over time. When I look at any board now, I look at the flow of the story first, and it's been a great thing to have my mind opened as to what a drawing "is" or "should be". Bill Peet drew beautifully, sure--but he wasn't shooting for pretty. He was a hell of an artist and storyteller who worked like a dog at his craft and couldn't do it any other way than the way he did. That his drawings are also individually beautiful is a happy by-product of his knowledge and skill.

So try to draw your boards as well as you possibly can. As if your life depended on it, for the fun of it--but most of all for the betterment of your story. Don't look at the drawings as illustrations, but as story points. And keep your mind open, too. There's a lot of ways to peel that onion. You might invent some yourself.


Cookedart said...

Hey Jenny!

Fabulous post by the way. Thanks a lot for sharing your musings! Keep them up!

I have to say too that nowadays there are at least a few more books available for the aspring storyboard artist to look at - name John Canemaker's Paper Dreams and the fabulous work of Hayao Miyazaki (he has released some storyboard books of his films as well as included a story-reel version with most of the 2-disc editions of the Ghibli films).

Anyways, it's great to hear a story artist talking about his/her craft - I find it's animators and character designers in droves - where did all the layout and story people go?

Thanks again!

Jenny Lerew said...

Hi Alan, and thanks! I was hoping that post makes some sense...
You're absolutely right--I should do a review of the books currently out there..."Paper Dreams" especially is a must-have, as are all of Canemaker's titles. I also have almost all of the Ghibli books--perhaps I should scan some of Miyazaki's boards...they're so great, and I forget not everyone has ready access to those books(it's hard enough to find them in L.A.).

As for where the story guys went--Mark Kennedy puts me to shame with his all-encompassing Temple of the Seven Golden...well, you know. At least I hope so!
Then there's Story Boredom, plus a bunch of fellows at Pixar, plus my friend Dave Pimentel's "Drawings From a Mexican". He's teaching story at Calarts this year...and then there's the students like yourself, and the recent grads like Jen Hager the story ranks are getting deeper in blogdom. ; ) As for layout--someone help me! Maybe it'd be neat to list the sidebar blogs by category? Then again people do hop around and many are into more than one aspect of animation. Hmmm...

Uncle Phil said...

Great post Jenny!

As a young guy in this business I'm still struggling with some of the "pretty" drawing issues. But I definitely felt like I matured when a close friend and mentor opened my eyes and made me appreciate ugly and or funny drawings. It was really hard to discern ugly and pretty, from bad and good. I think my horizons have widened and I can now enjoy a funny board no matter how it's drawn.... well, to a degree.

Now I just have to find the confidence in my own ability and make some ugly drawings for myself. Or at least not feel like I have to "pretty up" what may ahve been a successful drawing that's rough around the edges.

Now I'm rambling...

Thanks again for the great post.

J said...

I agree Jenny and this has been a big lesson for me lately. It can sing on the boards, but if it doesn't dance on the reels, its a do over. Having said that, I still TRY to make the most appealing drawings I can, beause I really think it helps get things across and get people excited, which is fun to do in production.
GREAT post.

Alessandra Sorrentino said...

..As it had been said before, this was a fantastic post, very interesting, so sincere and enlightening.
Thanks for sharing all this, I'll send it to all my storyboard collegues here, it's really worth reading it.
Right ooon Jenny! ;)

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Well said, Jenny! I like what you said about regarding board drawings as story points and not illustrations!

John S. said...

Great post, Jenny!
The sure sign of the amature/first time director is when they ask for the characters to be put "on Model". Your post should be put put into a pamphlet and handed out to executives and first time directors alike.
Great meeting you the other day, BTW!

blah said...

Thanks for sharing this. I'm kinda new to the storyboarding field (coming from animation) and this will be a good thing to keep in mind as I discover this new way to create!

Lee-Roy said...

Great post. Letting go is a constant challenge. It takes confidence. Or a willingness to fail might be another way to look at it. Go out on a limb and render something the way you think it should feel, not the way you think it should look. No?

A couple names come to mind. Quentin Blake and Ralph Steadman. "Story Artists" in their own right. I'm sure there are more, but these are at the forefront of my mind at the moment. Really raw styles, but so great.

warren said...

Nice post! I'll add my applause here: clapclapclapclapclap!

Can we see some boards sometime? It's fun to look at that stuff. Stuff that's already out, of course. Don't want you getting canned.

Marc Crisafulli said...

Thanks for this!