Apr 25, 2006

'Take your inner artist to work' day

This morning before leaving the house I downloaded the latest episode of Clay Kaytis' Animation Podcast and started playing it on my way to work. I'd made it about fifteen minutes into the interview with Glen Keane(part two of two)before I parked the car, but that was enough to send me into a thoughtful daze which I'm still in after lunch. I highly recommend it.

Listening to it brings up so many more questions...of course it's generally well known what professionals in animation think of Glen Keane, and what a singular place he holds in animation today. I don't want to go here into a fan dance about Glen's abilities....what I do want to say is that while most of us probably won't draw or animate anywhere near as well as he does(though hey, we can certainly always try--don't think I'm shirking that responsibility), what we can strive for is to somehow achieve and nurture the kind of attitude he has towards his work. One thing I've learned as fact is that no matter how good the assignment, the film--its eventual greatness, if that's the case--the work is so often deeply frustrating on so many levels, most infuriating the obstacles we face all alone at our desks.

That an animator of Glen's caliber acknowledges the same hurdles and deals with them honestly, all while gladly offering the benefits of his experience and maintaining a generosity of spirit on his team--that's something that anyone can try for.

This week is "take your kids to work" week at my studio; I'm not going to be here on the day, so couldn't volunteer (as I pondered doing, and would have loved to) for the 'explaining story" segment of the thing, but we're amply covered by some great people in that area. I know they'll infuse the kids with a sense of the fun and amazing responsibility of applying individual art to a group project like a film.
I wonder what the kids will think of it all...when I listen to veterans who retain a spirit of newness and exploration after years and years of animation deadlines, I feel like a kid myself.
Anything might be possible.


For no other reason, really, than that it's beautiful.

I mean, what a design and piece of animation, that the cels look like this.
I've always been gobsmacked by Preston Blair's Red, like everyone else; those drawings in the old Walter Foster book are enough to make you cry, they're so rich and expressive...and she's an elusive girl--very hard to draw well, to hit just right; like Snow White, if the littlest things about her head, face, eyes, legs, etc.etc. is off, she looks wrong. You can't just be close, it's got to be just right...which is hard. It's an idiosyncratic design. Nothing quite like it anywhere. Milt Kahl's Slue Foot Sue is more sophisticated, really, in drawing and animation, but she's also different, and wouldn't have worked as well in the Tex Avery cartoons anyway. I love the old story(from Leonard Maltin's book, "Of Mice and Magic")where supposedly the cels were stolen from off the camera platen during production.

Apr 23, 2006

Calling All Cats

Who's got the drafts for this segment of "Make Mine Music"? Anyone?

This wonderful short is cited more often than any other individual piece of feature animation as being the Freddie Moore style(of design, for the girls, obviously), with the "centaurettes" Of "Fantasia"s Pastoral segment running a close second...but the timing of this short's production is a bit problematic when considering how much Fred Moore himself had to do with it; he was on awfully thin ice at Disney's in 1945-46 and in fact was fired the same year this was released. I'd swear he did do animation himself in it, and it's inconceivable that he didn't supervise the overall style of the thing. It's great for any number of reasons--a perfect match for Benny Goodman's music, not least--but it's also fun to see such Fred staples as his iconic little girl in pigtails(who was a caricature of one of his own daughters, judging from the names given similar-looking centaurettes) move so beautifully and with, yes, the Freddie Moore charm.

And who designed the keen titles(like the one above)? Tom Oreb, perhaps?

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".

Apr 18, 2006

Patrick et Rodolphe

Another plug--unasked for, as they all were...but Rodolphe Guenoden is just insanely crazily gifted and funny. Also very supportive and...did I mention funny? He's a hell of a hand with women--the drawn ones; his wife is the woman in the panel, so he knows how to draw beautiful girls. He's done at least one sketchbook, which is a must-have.

Here's a panel from one of his comics featuring himself and his wife at home on a Sunday. Rodolphe I became aware of on a long ago film where he interpreted and animated the sexiest mayan ever, Chel. He's got a lot of style, as does his entire family; on Halloween his clique rented film costumes from Universal and so at the lunch tables we were treated to a tableaux of he and his wife and friends in full Louis XVI regalia, wigs and all(they looked good, too). Now he's a story artist. His website's well worth a lot of clicking.
And while I'm in a French frame of mind, I can't forget my neighbor down the hall Patrick Mate.
. God, what a painter and caricaturist! Also just the kindest man you could find. Very lucky I am to be around such guys.
Note: both images swiped from the respective websites without permission at all; when they find out I'm in heap big trouble, so don't try this at home!

Where in the world...

I want this book:

Out of print and out of chance. Merde!

I have another book by this author, and it's just jam-packed with heretofore unpublished animation drawings(many in sequence, in fold-out pages), visdev, rough drawings--all kinds of artwork that make it a veritable sequel along the lines of "Illusion of Life". That one(the one I own)is called "De Blanche-Neige a Hercule"--"From Snow White to Hercules".

Apr 17, 2006

Learn by doing--and looking

I've mentioned his new site before, but here I go again--because today's post on Dave Pimentel's blog, "Drawings From a Mexican", features not his own work but that of a few of the attendees in Dave's instructed life drawing class here at Dreamworks. Most of these folks are story artists, and all are tremendously talented colleagues of mine, I'm proud to say. Most of us have been on the same project(s) lately as well...but here we get to see how they differ in style and how strong they all are as draughtsmen.

I just fed on studying this kind of "rough" drawing as a teenager, and it was pretty hard to find back then in books(Bridgeman was one, Kley another). Thank goodness for the internet now. Just looking at these quick gesture drawings is an education for all of us who love the line. And Dave, an animator who did story a favor by becoming a story artist, learned plenty from Walt Stanchfield as well as setting a standard for keeping one's eyes and ears open as an artist all the time. If his site's not on your list yet--add it!


Apr 14, 2006

Freddie Moore-a preview

From the collection of James Walker

This is one in a fairly long gag sequence done by David "Bud" Swift for the amusement of himself, Ward Kimball, Ken O'Brien and of course the subject: Fred Moore. There's a story behind these drawing themselves, which I'll tell when I've managed to scan them all and present them here in proper order. Until then, here's one--Moore appealing for understanding to his pal Kimball.

Interesting to compare this drawing(drawn by Ken O'Brien, tracing off a David Swift original) with the actual rough animation pose by Fred himself in the previous post.

Apr 12, 2006

On Story: True Characters

Fred Moore's Lampwick, from "Pinochio". A likeable bad guy.

A long time ago at a studio a few miles away, there once was a script that I and a half dozen others storyboarded. The main character was a little guy, meant to be cute, who was also presented as a tremendous pain in the ass. Really. That was intentional; the entire plot demanded that he hate everything about his warm, comfortable, upper-class life and want to go out and "see the world". He wasn't micromanaged like the famous clownfish Nemo, he only had the most basic kinds of parental attention and discipline to deal with--but for the purposes of the story he just plain hated...everything.

Now, I had a few problems with this.

First, I didn't see any reason given why this adolescent animal character would have developed a distaste for the things I see my pets crave: affection, interaction with their pals (both animal and human), warmth, shelter, and especially food. It still might have been possible to make a better case for wanderlust, if it had been shown rather than stated: "I want adventure!".
But the main problem was a very obvious and basic one: the character as presented in the story was unlikeable. He was selfish, rude--and selfishly rude, and a dozen other tiresome variations on selfish and rude. Apparently it was more important to the writers that we follow the adventures of a truly unpleasant character, supposedly identifying with him for 80 minutes, just so his story arc could have him redeemed at the end.

I don't know about you, but when I watch an animated film, especially one with rich potential for fun and high spirits and comedy, I don't want to be forced to either sit through a therapy session with a mediocre analyst, nor do I want to spend most of that time with a jerk. That doesn't mean that a character has to be perfect, or perfectly happy, or have no troubles. But there's been a trend in all types of film to insist that the character can't just face a conflict, he or she has to be terribly flawed and conflicted himself. It used to denote depth in a character. It's become a formula and it's an approach that needs to be handled with incredible finesse to work. Think that happens regularly?

It can work: "The Incredibles" is filled with scenes that usually make me check my watch or wish I had brought a penlight and a book, or earplugs: a screaming family argument at the dinner table; a brother and sister snarking and screaming at each other; more nagging and/or arguing between the parents...everyone knows those scenes. Millions of people, in fact. The difference--and it's crucial--is that the characters were introduced with great delicacy, with humor, with humanity. We liked them--a lot. So that by the time they begin to break down, instead of a turn off, the drama is really that--dramatic. I, who hate typical movie argument scenes, happened to turn on HBO the other night; "Incredibles" was on, in the middle of the "total chaos" dinner scene. Instead of turning it off(and even though I've seen it numerous times)I found myself sitting down and enjoying it again--for the timing, the performances, the master juggling act of the director/writer, animators and art direction, the story--the whole enchilada. Great and honest filmmaking, with real characters. All animated. You can't look away!

Another film where the use of sometimes unpleasant characters works, almost invisibly, is "Lilo & Stitch". There we really have what might be described as a disturbed kid. A disturbed, unhappy, occasionally downright bratty animated kid--usually the kind of thing that spells nails on a blackboard for me. But though it sometimes seems like it might tip over, it never does descend into the Land Of No Return for Lilo. I think it's because that while she acts up, throws tantrums, is just terribly awful to her poor sister(who really is trying), she also clearly doesn't want to be a brat. She loves life, is filled with energy and imagination and is always trying to invent her own better world--which makes for the entertainment, the pathos and the comedy of her Elvis adoration, her photograph collection, her always-hatching plans for Stitch, whether he agrees or not. She's an inexorable, contradictory force of nature--in other words, a bit of a real little girl. A rare thing to find in the last 15 years of animation, unfortunately.

Show the audience "real" in some form and you will win their sympathy(and it won't matter a damn how extreme the characters look, either; they could be as designy as a MOMA exhibit, so to speak). Construct characters whose actions are dictated by plot demands and neuroses that presumably give them something to "change" from or shuck off unconvincingly in Act 3 and the unreality tells.
Story artists get very close to their characters. As I've written before, whatever the situation, when we have a scene we've got to work out, depending upon the amount of freedom in the scene to add or improvise, it's almost impossible not to become the characters and once you've taken them on, to find that they surprise you with bits of business or a new idea that you didn't have when you started. That's a good thing. If, however, you start with a character who's motivation is indecipherable or who you just plain don't like... The scene has to be done in any case, but where feeling is lacking--through no fault of the artist--it shows. In the best of times those scenes get tossed out; it becomes evident that there's a lack of sympathy there and your audience at work is expected to be frank. But often these roadblocks could be avoided if the essence of the character--if his "character"--weren't forced into an off-putting attitude at the story's conception. These are really important things to consider. It may seem a fine line between a character who has a problem and one who is a problem, but the line is there and once crossed it results in a disconnect that takes a hell of a lot of work to fix.

Starting out with good, likeable protagonists isn't hard; we make our own casting decisions every day--and art imitates life. Who would you rather have lunch with: the person who sits down already griping and irritable, totally self-absorbed and uninterested in you, or the one who smiles, is glad to see you, maybe cracks a joke and asks how you're doing before settling down to griping about the lousy job the mechanic did on his car yesterday? That second guy will have you with him all the way, won't he? The first one? You'd be checked out by the time he gets around to telling you why he's so dissatisfied with his life. Characters can have struggles and problems and hey--quirks! But leaven them with the things we respond to in our friends, in the person that attacts us on the train with their smiling face or the bizarre choice in reading material they're holding that suggests a totally different inner life. Whatever. It is possible to come up with layered characters for animation. In fact, it's easier to do than to struggle with guys who have something they have to "do" but no real reason why the audience should be watching them do it.

Just so you know we do think about these things.

Apr 6, 2006

Gandalf and his sidekick, that pesky Frodo.

The latest from Dave Pimentel:

...and he tells me this was a phone doodle?
I tell you, folks--sometimes you just feel...speechless.

Happy, sunny, tasty, colorful stuff

I'm a longtime fan of Dan Goodsell's, and you will be too if you take a look at his blog and the adjacent pages he's done, using the huge amount of keen things from his collection. Here's a small taste from his blog, "A Sampler of Things":

Neat, eh? He posits that the great illustrator Richard Scarry might have done these cereal boxes--there's more boxes shown on his latest post. Go there now!
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Apr 4, 2006

Listen to Glen Keane on the Podcast

It's up! The latest Animation Podcast is part one of an interview with master animator Glen Keane--truly a guy who requires no other introduction. I haven't even played it myself yet, but I'm sure it's going to be fascinating stuff:

Glen Keane interviewed by Clay Kaytis

My one on one interactions with Glen have been limited to a total of about 3 minutes, but one in particular stands out as a great memory: seeing "Mermaid" at an 8:00 show at the Cinerama Dome, my group--all family, no other students or fans--was settled in the rear of the theater, and just as the lights came down Glen Keane and his family sat down in front of us. Of course I recognized him, and I'd seen his rough pencil test of "Part Of Your World" when he brought it to show to the entire animation department a year or so earlier. It had stunned me(and everyone else)with its beauty. It was absolutely a new pinnacle for Disney character animation. So, after sitting through this finished film, and being more entertained than I'd been in ages by a bunch of guys at the top of their form, it was obvious that this was really going to be a new day for animation. Thank goodness.

As the credits rolled and we all jumbled our way up the aisle, I was side by side with Glen for a second. I stopped him with an outstretched hand and said, shaking his as he looked at me politely, "Thanks for that beautiful animation". He looked a wee bit disoriented, as you might imagine--who was I supposed to be? He had no idea...but he also looked pleased. It made my night that I was able to literally thank him for such an exceptional job. I don't know what he thinks of that animation of Ariel now, with all the years of newer discoveries, hindsight, etc.--but to me it's still way up there.
Okay, off to play that while I work!

Apr 1, 2006

Another look at Fred Moore...

it's almost another typically beautiful day in paradise--Los Angeles, California; I see the sun peeking out periodically and since it's Saturday--the outside world beckons. Here's another photograph from the amazing collection of James Walker, of another weekend in another century. I'm 99% sure that I was told who that is with Fred at poolside, but I have been frantically busy with work, and am remiss in not making some very important calls; I'm determined to have a sit down with James and record the stories he's amassed in his years of collecting and studying the work(and life)of Freddie Moore. He far outstrips me in his dedication and knowledge, and I owe him more than I can say for offering to share these things with me, and more importantly with all of you. There's something about Fred Moore that is infinitely touching and attractive. it's got to be there in his animation, as most of us had zero information when we discovered him about "the rest of the story"--his troubles, his early death. That's almost beside the point. I've always felt that artist's drawings--the artists I've known and worked with, and the ones like Moore that I've admired--are pure self-portraits. An element of self is somehow there...this is perhaps just a projection, once one gets to know the artist, but I don't think so. It's a fairly intangible thing, but it either attracts or not, and Fred Moore put something in there that just attracts more than most. In Illusion of Life it's called "appeal".

All that blather and I've got no drawings to post right now--just a photograph--but it's one more for the books: