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.


Elliot Cowan said...

I think when we say that some people draw better than others it's important to make a distinction.
I think all of us who draw for a living should feel some obligation to "get better".
This doesn't mean that one should learn to draw like Milt Kahl (although it wouldn't hurt), but if you're dealing with the business of animation then your work should develop more life and energy and confidence.
Why would you even bother to go to the trouble of drawing anything at all if you didn't think you could bring more of yourself into it at some stage?
The more personal energy in your drawings the more people relate to them.
I don't entirely agree with his assessment that the slicker the drawings are the less personal the film feels.
If the personality of your drawings exists purely through aping others then he's quite right, but for someone with passion and vitality this is irrelevant.
Cordell Baker draws very well in the first place, whether he thinks so or not is another matter.

Your closing remarks sound like "This is as good as I can do" rather than a celebration of your new work, which is rather defeatist and not very Levyist, I think.

Mike Rauch said...

All very true Dave. Setting limitations (and doing so with your strengths and weaknesses in mind) is a critical part of the process.

When Tim and I started work on our first short, "Germans in the Woods", one of the reasons I thought it would be good was because we could do it in black and white. Neither of us were particularly confident about our use of color, so we bypassed that altogether.

I also agree that cutting out some of the planning that happens on larger scale productions can be a smart idea on independent work. You can plan until you're blue in the face. The planning can even become an excuse not to get started. On our first three shorts, we just had a loose animatic and character designs before starting animation. We didn't do BG layout or style frames really. Those things were figured out in the middle of the process, or sometimes even after all the animation had been completed.

I think productions that are at a larger scale can take notes from the kind of decisions made on films produced at an independent level. For example, the concept of making use of the talent each member on the team has.

On our most recent StoryCorps shorts, there was a temptation to want to push our BG art to be more elaborate since we were working with immensely talented guys like Bill Wray. However, Bill's forte isn't finicky details. His fine art painting, where he presumably is working in a way that is most natural and suited to him, is impressionistic. He paints loose, broad, strokes. It's painterly, not slicked up and polished.

Over time, we've learned to take better and better advantage of Bill's natural tendencies as an artist and it's definitely paid off. There's an increase in overall quality, the work is looking more and more unique (Cordell is right!), and Bill is more excited about what he's doing.

David B. Levy said...

Good food for thought Elliot. When I think on Cordell's quote I'm thinking of the reels and portfolios I've seen of the top animators in the business. Their work tends to look similar to each other. They draw very well and have honed their skills to draw in house styles. All that tends to blend together for me and it doesn't reveal the individual artist the way the NY indie scene does. I dig seeing the individual artist's hand. And, its not just draftsmanship we're talking about. It's also timing, staging, and point of view. I love seeing the individuals take on all that. Flaws and all.

I totally agree that we should feel some obligation to "get better." Even though we each have different definitions of what that growth is and it what areas we want to grow. At the very least it's a survival skill. If you want to continue to eat, you have to stay sharp, keep improving your work...

My closing remarks aren't meant to be defeatist. Mike Rauch got the point in what he shared on "Germans in the Woods." By eliminating color it freed them to make a great film. It didn't meant that they would never work with color.... but, elimination is a great way to be creative. You do it all the time in your box head shorts. No dialogue, no color, and I know you can use those elements in your work, but you present a strong vision by focusing on less is more.

And, my closing remarks are a way of saying, whatever your strengths or weaknesses are right now, you can still make a film that makes all of that work for you.

Elliot Cowan said...

Matey - my Boxhead and Roundhead shorts look the way they do mostly because of laziness and partly to do with the technology.
I don't like animating very much and am always looking to make it look like I'm doing more than I actually am.
It's all tricks to fool the eye...

Mike - When you say the SC films look unique do you mean they look like nothing else out there or that they look different from one installment to the next?

Doug Vitarelli said...

that second to last paragraph can certainly spark a lot of debate. i think cordell is making a broad statement that is true in some ways yet can easily be picked in so many ways. it all seems to hinge on the definition of "sophisticated". a wonderful word yet ambiguous in this case. much like the word "quality" which spurred the creation of the wonderful book "zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance".

nonetheless i love the quote.

David B. Levy said...

Elliot, I think we're on the same page here. Would you be so productive if you hadn't found a way to make animated films despite being lazy or not enjoying animating? The fact that you have been very productive and made very good films shows that you are able to get things done despite this. You use technology for part of that but the other creative (elimination) choices help you get a lot done too. Would you have made any films if you had to draw every frame or followed a strict traditional approach to your filmmaking? I would venture probably not.

That's all you playing up to your strengths while understanding your weaknesses or lack of interest. I find that inspiring! It's what I do too. And, I think the ability to do this is one of the main secrets of sticking with a project and finishing something.

The opposite approach is being precious where each drawing has to be perfect. That's the track I find defeatist. I've come to believe that indie films offer the chance for self expression and it's a missed opportunity to not take that chance. It took me years to learn that.

David B. Levy said...

To clarify Cordell's quote, he was talking specifically about indie animation shorts. Hopefully, that adds some context, and that's how the context is used in my book as well.

dennis e. sebastian said...

"the better the drawer..."


i work in CG and it still applies. "the better the modeler/rigger/texturer/lighter...."

a few months ago i decided to forego the slick pixar look for my animated short and go for a rougher and more stylized one.

This i did for two reasons. one - it would take me forever to finish the slick, and two - i wanted to show something from my culture which is unique and not necessarily everyone's idea of beautiful character design. Risky, i know, but in the end I believe it will pay off.

Thank you for your blog post today. It really validated my decision :)

Daniel said...

Elimination is one way of looking at it. Constraints and limitations is another. Some of the best stuff has been produced under all three "set backs."

But I disagree with the basic idea of Cordell's quote. I'll always strive to draw better. And when I make my own films they will be mine, not in a house style with house style timing. But I will slave to make the draftsmanship as good as it can be. And it will probably take me 12 years too, haha.

Looking forward to reading the rest of your book David. Loved the first one.

Robert Schaad said...

If only someone could have passed this info along to Winsor McCay. Oh the labor intensiveness! Kidding aside though, a great post. And also, for some, their idea of getting better might be to relax and adopt a looser approach. There are some great ideas and theories being tossed around both in this post, and the comments. Real interesting to read of the creative solutions used, given that I've seen (and enjoyed) all of your films.

Caresse said...

I remember looking at an intentionally crude stop motion piece which involved a panning camera and chalk drawings.

Despite how raw it was, it was very aesthetically appealing - and I tried to identify why.

I decided to reflect on the process - how would I achieve the same effect?

As a lover of sitting in front of a computer, I figured I'd shoot the live action, and then just animate, probably in Flash and then export as an Illustrator sequence, adjust the lines with a custom chalky-brush and then import that into After Effects and then track the motion and composite the hell of it, my major task being to make it look natural.

And that's when it hit me.


I think that's why work that's less polished stands out so much. You can see the person in the craftmanship.

The best art/movie/story/song is the one to which a majority of people can relate. The average non-art-school-graduate can relate to less polished work, because they can understand the process. It's almost Socratic of the less polished artist - instead of aggressively saying: "Hey look what I can do!" the artist is leading the viewer to the revelation: "Look what we all could do if we just apply some effort."

It's why I think CG gets so much flack from Traditionalists, because anyone who hasn't pushed a vertex doesn't understand what goes into it and thereby cannot appreciate the craftmanship to its' fullest.

Of course, whatever the medium, as long as it's a good piece, people will generally appreciate it on some level - but I think the more inclusive an artistic process is, the wider the emotional net it casts.

Joe Cappabianca said...

I remember being in school and feeling like I just wasn't as talented of a draftsman as some of my fellow classmates. I felt as if I would never be able to express myself if I couldn't get my drawing "chops" up to snuff. Than as the years rolled by I saw shows like superjail or shorts like "boxhead Roundhead". There is just something just so liberating to both of these projects, something that lit a fire underneath me. It's works like these that inspired me to start and finish my own very first film. I believe it was how both examples showed just how effective raw emotion can be, without having to pass for "art of Pixar" standards. As elliot has articulated, aspiring to the high standard is never a bad ideal, but being true to your story, your vision will always win the day. Thanks for the post, always great food for thought!

Elliot Cowan said...

Mr D. B Levy - Although we're in the same book, I think we're on different pages : )

Joey Capps - Your short film is terrific. Like nothing I would have expected you to make.
I hope you're sending it to festivals, or at the very least, forcing your friends to watch it over and over.