Saturday, November 27, 2010

5 Lessons from the Fab 4

There are two kinds of people in this world. People who appreciate The Beatles, and people who will eventually appreciate them. Think I'm wrong? All the Beatle-bashers I've known eventually asked me to lend them one of their CDs. Richard O' Connor, I'm waiting for your call, and keeping a copy of The White Album at arm's reach.

All kidding aside (or at least long enough to get through the rest of this post), if you know me at all, you know that the Fab Four are my ultimate creative icons. Real original, huh? But, while mine is far from a unique point of view, as a non-musician, I find there's a lot in The Beatles story that I can apply to my chosen field of animation. So, without further ado, here's a short Magical Mystery Tour From Me to You:

1-Do your thing even if it means you're out of step with trends or fads.
By the time The Beatles were fully developed and looking for a record deal in England, they were woefully out of step with what record companies were looking for. The big star at the time was Cliff Richard, a tame English version of Elvis Presley. Solo singers were king and guitar bands were out. None of this mattered to The Beatles, and despite Decca records turning them down for going against the grain, George Martin, a producer in residence at E.M.I., decided to take a chance on them.
How to apply to animation:
Whether making a personal film, or whipping up a pitch project in attempt to score a pilot or series, developing your creative voice (no matter how in or out of step with trends and fads) is the most important thing. The world has enough followers. If you want to do something serious in animation it starts with you. Don't ask anyone for permission, don't apologize for what you like, and weave together all your interests and influences and put your personal spin on them. Need examples? Ralph Bakshi and Bill Plympton.

2-You are your own product.
Why did George Martin sign The Beatles to a recording contract? According to him, it wasn't necessarily because of their musical talent. The larger reason was their personality and wit, which was (at that time) ahead of their writing/performing talent.
How to apply to animation:
Yes, even if this age of on-line social networking and YouTube viral videos, the animation artist that is fully part of their own brand has a major advantage. This translates into making personal appearances at film festivals, comic conventions, and events, where you push your product, promote your brand, and make important relationships that grow opportunities.
Need examples? PES, Signe Baumane, Patrick Smith, Don Hertzfeldt.

3-Once established, keep growing as artists.
By The Beatles second LP, they were international stars, even cracking into the American market, which no other British act had ever been able to do. The Beatles could have used the rest of the years making 12 more A Hard Day's Night albums, but they didn't. They evolved and pursued wherever their artistic muse took them. This meant scoring songs with strings (Yesterday, Elanor Rigby), introducing new instruments to rock music (George bringing the sitar to the Rubber Soul album), and singing about subjects other than love, beginning with "Paperback Writer."
How to apply to animation:
This is probably the main reason Bill Plympton makes features. His animated shorts have consistently made money and scored critical acclaim, but the different demands of producing successful features gave him an artistic goal to strive for. Another example are John and Faith Hubley who developed an increasingly personal and sensitive approach in their shorts, working in unique styles not normally associated with animation, and also experimenting with improvised and unscripted soundtracks. The other choice is to keep making the same film over and over again. But, sooner or later, you might get bored, and so too, might your audience.

4-Rewrite the Rules.
Rock stars were supposed to tour to support their albums, hit singles, etc. When this proved exhausting to the Fab Four, they did the unthinkable and stopped preforming concerts. Instead, by focusing on recording, they were able to create ever more sophisticated records, beginning with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band.
How to apply to animation:
Bill Plympton exploited the new markets for animation that rose in the late 80s and early 90s with such venues as The Tourne of Animation, Spike and Mike, and the expanding cable markets such as MTV. When PES came along in 2003, none of those venues were available. But, did that mean that nobody could come along after Plympton and still make a successful career on the back of their short animated films? PES answered that question by giving away his films for free on his website and also in his encouragement of friends and fans to share his work virally. The result was that PES became an industry name and brand, and not only did this lead to paid venues for his shorts (European TV, to name one), it also attracted advertising agencies and gave PES a career as a top commercials director. The lesson here is that no matter how things continue to change, there will always be a way to do business. And, I'd be crazy not to mention Nina Paley, who rewrote the book on feature film distribution...

5-Stop, or change it up when it's no longer fun.
When working together was no longer the joy it was in past years, The Beatles gave up the ghost and broke up in 1970. All four of them were free to pursue their own independent creative lives, and grow up as human beings and as artists.
How to apply to animation:
What was the reason you got into this business? I doubt many would answer, I want to be a cog in an assembly line working on a preschool series, but, that's what happens to many of us that work in NY animation. Yes, were are lucky and grateful to be paid to work our craft, but if something else might make you happier, sooner or later, you should listen to that voice. NYU animation alumns Tatia Rosenthal and Michael Dougherty started out staffing some of The Big Apple's top preschool shows before figuring out that their creative destiny lay in other areas. Dougherty left animation to co-write X-Men II, and Superman Returns, and Rosenthal followed up animating on The Wonder Pets by directing and co-writing her stop-motion feature $9.99 and subsequently had an original live-action screenplay optioned.

We are each responsible for our own experience in matters of career, or as the Lads from Liverpool might say, "And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make."

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Trouble with "Name That Tune"

Stills from Bonnie and Clyde (1967).

Forgive another post comparing an old live action movie to today's animated features, but I am once again moved to do so. I recently caught a screening of Megamind, not because I was burning with curiosity nor was it because I had $12 burning a whole in my pocket. I happened to have a 3 hour gap between errands and teaching at NYU, so I figured, "What the heck." I had no expectations going into the film. I'm not a "hurray for all things animated- guy." But, I try to keep an open mind.

Megamind was okay at best. At times entertaining, but awfully forgettable. Sort of the definition of "meh." All the characters were animated capably, but with that modern day, feelings on their sleeve method. We can trace this method of animation acting back to 90s era Disney, and I think this problem is just what Miyazaki is talking about when he said that Disney sets the bar too low. In short, viewers are not supposed to think anything on their own or be required to add their own humanity to the performance they see on the screen. So we get superficial attitude in place of nuanced acting. At Disney, this form of animation acting, calling it, "Name that Tune," with the idea that every drawing is supposed to be a neon sign blaring the characters inner most feelings in the most cliched and over the top manner possible. Sure, that could be a fine approach to a specific character in a specific feature, but the way it applied across the board is a mistake.

The deepest most heartfelt moment of Megamind is (spoiler alert) when Tina Fey and Will Ferrell's characters have a sort of parralell moment. They each visit the Metro Man museum to deal with their melancholy feelings. There's lots of quiet and long scenes of them walking through the lonely cavernous space. While the sequence was heavy handed (this is super hero territory after all), it's the films most moving moment. Yet, it's ironic that it was achieved through layout and cinematography and not via character animation. Of course, there are many components in a film, all of which help tell the story. But, I couldn't escape the fact that the filmmakers' best conveyed emotion when their characters were barely on the screen.

Two weeks later I finally watched a film I had been meaning to see for years, a classic film from over 40 years ago, called Bonnie and Clyde. There's a scene in the film that I'd like to talk about, one that goes against Disney's "name that tune" school of drawing and everything that the modern era of animated features stands for. Bonnie and Clyde, played by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, drive up to a a depressed backwoods gas station where actor Michael J. Pollard fills their tank with gas. Bonnie and Clyde spot a fellow conspirator in Pollard, and Dunaway seductively explains to the simple man that their car is stolen and that they're bankrobbers. Pollard's reaction to hearing all this is to twist and turn uncomfortably away and air punch at a gas station post. He's sporting an uncomfortable grin and his glances back at Dunaway remind us of a little child. His reaction goes on for a long time––a unique reaction to the information he's taking in. At the conclusion of the scene, Pollard robs his own cash register and donates the cash to his new partners in crime, just before jumping aboard their stolen car to ride away with them.

Now what boggles the mind is that animation can do anything. It can get into the soul of a character in a way that even a human actor cannot. Animation has its own properties of telling a story that are custom ready for an audience to engage with and project their own reality and life experience on, roughly to complete the experience. But, the audience can't do this if the film follows the "name that tune" school of animation because such a technique makes the viewing experience a passive one. There's nothing for the audience to think about on a deep meaningful level. Instead you get a sort of "animated fast food" experience. There's nothing about full or traditional animation that requires going down this path. Dumbo's sad and dazed expression as he walks to the water barrel with Timothy mouse (right after they visited Dumbo's incarcerated mother) comes to mind. What about that is cliche? There's so much sorrow in the little Elephant's face. So much thought behind his eyes.

All of this begs the question of why such formulas (like "name that tune") are being used in the first place. I see the value in getting the artist to conquer the blank page to dive in and draw, but at worst it encourages cliches in how it values instant readability above all else. If we are truly capturing the illusion of life, how is this form of instant readability compatible with that? Michael J. Pollard's anguished reaction to being tempted by the romantic and exciting life of crime (or should I say, re-tempted, because his character's backstory was that he had already spent some time in jail), would never pass mustard in the "name that tune" scenario. This is because it forsakes cliches, achieving humanity. And, while you could say that comparing animation to live action is comparing apples and oranges, there's a lesson in here we'd be wise to learn and apply.

Monday, November 15, 2010

RISD and The Slacker New Wave

Above still from The Fran and Will Krause Cartoon Network pilot, Utica Cartoon, which is an example of how RISD's Slacker New Wave broke through to the mainstream over a ten year period to put a stamp on today's TV animation era.

Adventure Time, Regular Show, and Super Jail, all offbeat creator-driven series on current TV, on a network (CN) that had its first successes 15 years ago with a pack of very different shows, the most successful of which (Power Puff Girls and Dexter's Laboratory), followed the early 1990s wave that revived the thick-and-thin graphic style associated with UPA, by way of Cal Arts.

You might disagree with me, but my generation of animation artists that were in school in the first half of the 1990s had very little in the way of personal point of view. There were a handful of students obsessed with Disney's then-current hit streak of Little Mermaid to The Lion King. And just like any modern era, there was the usual amount of students inspired by anime. Other influences were The Simpsons, the sick and twisted world of Spike and Mike, and the underachieving graphics of MTV's Beavis and Butt-Head. But, I didn't see my generation of students (me included) pulling all of this together and doing anything with it. Sure, we might show bits and pieces of this stew of animation in our work, but we weren't serious about truly studying it and distilling it into something of our own.

But, the students (I've met) that went to school in the second half of the 90s seem to have had a far more distinct point of view, pooling together diverse influences such as The Simpsons, golden age animation know-how, Estonian animation otherworldlyness, and stripped-down (almost-Gary Larson-style) drawing skills, but with a modern post-grunge indie twist. Out of this school of animators came Fran and Will Krause, Jesse Schmal, Alan Foreman, Sean McBride, Christy Karacas, Mike Overbeck, and many more. Not only did these students have eclectic interests, more importantly, they had passion for animation and filmmaking. Their popular thesis films launched their careers and helped set animation on a new course that we are still seeing on today's Cartoon Network. It just goes to show how long these trends take to break through to the mainstream.

I like to call this The Slacker New Wave, because these filmmakers have such laid back personalities that showed through in their art. They mixed casual and quiet pacing with random and spontaneous stream of consciencenous ideas. Nobody could mistake Pen Ward's 2005 pilot for Adventure Time for what it was: a breakthrough in current animation development. But that was more a breakthrough in terms of development executives finally recognizing the next trend. Not to take anything away from Ward's achievement, but the style and point of view that he utilized had already been around and winning film festival prizes around the world for ten years. Ward carried it to the next step.

I think the hardest thing is to take in 100 years of animation, film, art, writing, music, and literature and put your stamp on it, and create something new from the air we all breathe. I think, the new trend of TV animation as evidenced by Adventure Time, Regular Show, and Super Jail (and others) was something that began in the mid to late 90s, possibly from one single school!

While there's hundreds of animated films being made every year, made in a myriad of styles, very few of them actually end up influencing the direction of what comes to define the next era in cartoons (of course, nor do they need to, but that's besides the point). Of those names listed above, only Sean McBride wasn't a RISD grad. Could it be that this school largely known for it's individual and non commercial approach has had the biggest influence on commercial animated product in recent years? The amazing trick is that the RISD films also stand alone as strong personal works of art. Note that the RISD student reel has won top honors (or at least runner up status) at the last three Ottawa festivals in a row. Kudos to RISD animation head Amy Kravitz and her teaching staff!

One thing is for certain, RISD organizes its thesis students differently than the four animation schools in New York City. While the big apple schools favor a system with students working as individuals reporting to a single advisor, RISD has thesis students report to each other as a class in weekly open critiques. The results of the RISD system speak for themselves. Now if I can only figure out what it means that Seth MacFarlane also came out of RISD in the mid 90s.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

"...the better the drawer..."

Some more stills from my latest short, Grandpa Looked Like William Powell, which is decidedly (and unashamedly) not about sophisticated drawing nor full animation.

At my book launch event at MoCCA, my friend, talented animator Stephen Mead, asked me if I had been a writer all my life. I remember being assigned a lot creative writing assignments in grammar school and high school and always feeling hopeful (at the start of each one) that I would do a good job and write the best essay or short story ever. But, it never seemed to happen. I never could write out the interesting ideas living inside my head. This went unchanged until I finally realized that you could write in your own voice.

As an animation professional I had a similar problem. I couldn't easily put on paper what I imagined in my head or what I could observe with my eyes. I recently finished my third animated short in three years and of all the shorts I've made, these are the three of which I'm most proud, and especially so with my new film "Grandpa Looked Like William Powell." I recently shared a link of this short with an animator friend of mine who is struggling for 12 years to make a single short film, and she asked me how I stay motivated and finish my films. I think the answer to this question is important because it's instructive to examine what factors may lead to finishing or not finishing projects.

First of all, there's nothing wrong with spending 12 years making a single film, nor is there anything wrong with making a sophisticated or complex film. I know of people spending even longer periods of time on films than 12 years, and who's to say that when those films come out that it won't have been worth every moment? So, the key is to make the film you want to make and play to your best chances of finishing it. I have the ability to stay focused enough to spend up to two years on a film, but now I prefer a more instant kind of film, one that doesn't require slick or perfect production. Besides, why not leave the slick stuff to Pixar? So, now I work to make films that look like I made them, not by a sea of anonymous employees.

The animation production of my "Grandpa" short was finished in a month despite it being four minutes and twenty seconds long. This speed was enabled by my creative choices. By drawing right onto the cintiq there was no paper to scan in or process, and because my finished animation was only line art there was no characters to color in. By using live action footage in place of backgrounds there was no background art to create. And, the combination of line art and live action footage ensured that the natural shadows coming off the gutter of the book would spill right on to my character lines, helping them to feel sandwiched into the book's pages and live alongside the original writing on the book's pages. My feeling is that elimination (no BGs, no color, no storyboard) is a big part of creativity. I had remembered that Michael Sporn had used a similar technique by deciding to not storyboard the first half of his powerful film "Champaign." I'm always keeping an ear out to hear how other people are working. You never know when you might want to borrow a technique or idea.

Because I wasn't burdened with a complicated production, a creative approach came together in a very organic way. Four or five shots into the film I got the idea to always draw my Grandpa in a bathing suit and hat, even though an explanation for that choice doesn't come until a minute into the film. This free wheeling way of working let me really get into character and get the right tone and motivation in each character's actions. When my grandpa throws me his autograph book at the end of the film he does it as an after thought. Its a very casual and cavalier action, something that is in character for my Grandpa and true to our relationship. It would have been a big mistake to have him hand me the book in a careful and loving manner. None of this was storyboarded or planned out ahead of time. I just drew the scene and figured it out as I went. And, while there was still a lot of thought in this method, it wasn't overdone or over planned. Slick and complicated productions require careful planning and a proper pipeline, but my little short required only a personal touch and little more.

World famous and oscar-nominated Cordell Barker penned one of my favorite quotes in my new book "...the better the drawer, the more the drawing seems to be of the most importance. But I think that it’s the least important of all [aspects]." I'm in firm agreement with Cordell, especially since I can't make sophisticated drawings. So, there's no way that perfect drawings could ever be the point of one of my films. What a liberating idea for any level of artist. Imagine if you gave yourself permission to draw what felt right versus what had to be slick or polished? Cordell went on to conclude, "The simpler the design, the more auteur the feel. The more slick and sophisticated the attempt, the less of a personal brand."

We all have different talents to exploit and different weaknesses to overcome. The key to success is figuring out how to make it all work for you.